|Arts & Letters|
Sunday, December 20, 2015
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
First, before the spoilers, it's good. A dramatic improvement over the prequels, if perhaps not quite up to the legendary originals. But what could live up to that sort of hype? I tried my hardest to keep expectations in check, and as a result, found myself greatly enjoying this movie. Star Wars is a lot of fun again, which is something that was sorely lacking in the prequels. My biggest complaint, and it's a small one, is that it's too reliant on callbacks to the original trilogy. Everyone's freaking out about this, so spoilers ahead I guess (I'll try to be a little vague about it).
In the behind-the-scenes materials for the prequels (of which there is a lot of footage that was generously released), there's an infamous scene where George Lucas notes that he's trying to establish parallels between the prequels and the original trilogy, saying "You see the echo of where all is gonna go. It's like poetry, they rhyme" Star Trek Into Darkness). Ironically, J.J. Abrams has evoked a more Lucas-esque feeling than Lucas managed in the prequels!
So there are lots and lots of callbacks. There's a bigger, badder Death Star. There's an assault on that Death Star that evokes the end of the original Star Wars. There's a dark, masked villain that is strong with the dark side of the force. He has a master that only appears in hologram. He also has a surprising familial relationship with someone. BB-8 is basically R2-D2, but he has that cool rolling propulsion. There's a cantina scene. Heck, Han Solo (and Chewbacca), General Leia, and Luke Skywalker all show up in varying degrees.
And it works. Again, there might be too many callbacks, but for the most part, they rhyme, like poetry. Where the movie really shines, though, is with the new characters. Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) is utterly fantastic, a scrappy badass and the best addition to the Star Wars universe since the original trilogy. Finn (John Boyega) is heroic and funny, hitting a note of almost childlike wonder. He's the most openly emotional, but still brave character in the film. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is charismatic and, well, not quite a rogue, but perhaps dashing. He's a straight arrow, right out of the serials. What's more, these three leads play off each other perfectly and the performances are spot on. One could quibble at the speed with which they develop their deep friendships, but this, too, rhymes with the original Star Wars trio of Luke, Leia, and Han. I love these three characters and cannot wait to see where they go next!
For his part, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is menacing and terrifying, reminiscent of Darth Vader, but by the end he's carved out a wholly different identity. One that's mysterious and vulnerable and intriguing, which softens the impossible comparison between the villains. I'm not quite sure what to make of this character, actually, especially where he ends up, but I'm really excited to see what happens here too. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is still in the shadows at this point, but he seems suitably menacing. Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) gets almost nothing to do in this film except look really cool in her snazzy chrome armor. My guess is that some of her stuff wound up on the cutting room floor, but that she'll also get a chance to rebound and establish herself as a name villain in the next film. Nowhere to go but up for her.
Of the returning characters, Han Solo and Chewbacca get the most screentime, perhaps a little too much, but Abrams made it work. Princess (sorry, General) Leia is in the movie just about the right amount, and Luke is only teased a bit (he'll certainly have more time in the next film). I was wary of this, and in some ways, my worries were justified, but it works out well enough in the end.
All in all, this is an excellent return to form for Star Wars, evoking the best of the original trilogy and yet showing enough potential to carve out its own identity in the following films. This will be crucial because otherwise, this will play out like lesser Star Wars. It's all well and good for this film to recall the originals so much, but the sequels will need to do their own thing if this is to truly succeed. The good news is that all the pieces are on the board, and they've done a good job maneuvering so far. Episode VIII writer/director Rian Johnson is a Kaedrin favorite, and I'm guessing that he'll shepherd this series on well. He's also on board to write Episode IX, so I think we're in good hands (though I have more trepidation about Colin Trevorrow as director).
As a science fiction nerd, I should note that this film is perhaps the least plausible of them all. And that's actually wonderful! One of the worst, dumbest things Lucas managed in the prequels was the hackneyed attempt to explain the Force scientifically. This movie has no such pretensions, and that's actually what Star Wars is all about.
If I may go off on a tangent for a moment here, I feel like I should mention the books that I always thought would make a great sequel trilogy. Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy is still wonderful and worth checking out, even though it is no longer official canon material. Grand Admiral Thrawn was a wonderful villain, so different from what you might expect, and that worked really well (still holding out hope for a Thrawn cameo in these new movies - come on Rian, just throw a dude with blue skin and a white Admiral's uniform on screen somewhere). The heroes in that book were still primarily Luke, Leia, and Han, which wouldn't really be possible in movies these days without recasting, and the new characters weren't quite as lovable as the new trio we got in this film. Still, the series is worth checking out, and it's really the only Expanded Universe stuff that I've really enjoyed.
Anyway, this movie is great. I will grant that I'm not particularly objective about this whole thing. There's a lot of nostalgia and love in this series for me, so it's hard to separate this from that. If I really wanted to, I'm sure I could nitpick a ton of stuff, but I don't want to. In fact, much of what I could nitpick here is almost equally applicable to the original movie. There's no sense in that, I just want to revel in this for now. I enjoyed this a lot more than the prequels, and this movie shows a lot of promise for future Star Wars efforts. Only two more years until Episode VIII (though we'll get a Rogue One movie next year).
Thursday, October 29, 2015
The Scarlet Gospels
"I am doing another Books of Blood collection and I'm writing a sequel to the book on which Hellraiser was based - this will be Pinhead's first appearance on the page, because he isn't even named in the original." - Clive Barker, from an interview in Imagi-Movies, Vol 1, No 2, Winter 1993/94The story that would eventually be published as The Scarlet Gospels has been a long time coming. To my knowledge, it was first mentioned in 1993, and has gone through innumerable permutations on its way to its current incarnation, published in May 2015. First it was to be but a single small story amongst others, then it ballooned into a 230,000 word behemoth, and finally it was cut back down to around 100,000 words. It's been quite a journey, and while I remain fully committed to the notion that authors don't owe their readers anything, teasing a story for 20+ years is perhaps a bit excessive. The biggest problem with this novel is one of expectations. Even if I found myself enjoying the book, it's hard to live up to 20 years of anticipation.
The novel brings together two of Barker's most famous characters. There's the Cenobite popularly known as Pinhead (but don't call him that to his face), who we meet as he's finishing off a quest to obliterate all living human magicians and in so doing, wrest all of their arcane knowledge for himself. You probably know Pinhead from the myriad filmic portrayals in the Hellraiser series of movies, but his origin is rooted in Barker's novella The Hellbound Heart. Then you've got Harry D'Amour, the private detective with a knack for finding himself at odds with the supernatural, as he did in Barker's The Last Illusion (from Cabal) and Everville. Here, he starts off on a routine assignment to clear out a dead man's magical library. Amongst that man's possessions is Lemerchand's Configuration, the infamous puzzle box capable of opening a door to hell that is usually occupied by our Pinheaded friend. It turns out that Pinhead would like Harry to act as a witness for the next phase of his nefarious plan. Harry is naturally reluctant, but when Pinhead kidnaps Harry's best friend Norma Paine, an old blind woman who can nevertheless see and speak with the dead, Harry has no choice but to round up a posse to chase after Pinhead. Their travels naturally lead them to hell, where Pinhead is waging all out war on hell's establishment.
I tend to vacillate back and forth on Barker. I love a lot of his short work, but he also has a tendency to get lost in language and stylistic machinations. That being said, I often find that he's able to right the ship just before I'm about to actually give up on what I'm reading. His best work manages the balance incredibly well, other works are a little more uneven. This one actually veers towards the more page-turnery side of the divide, but perhaps he's gone a bit too far. It feels pretty mainstream for what I normally think of from Barker. Even his grotesque imagery feels a little staid, nowhere near that edgy stuff he was writing in the 80s. On the other hand, this was actually quite a fun read, and I mostly enjoyed the whole experience.
I tended to prefer the plot threads centered around Pinhead, who remains a fascinating and somewhat obtuse character. On the other hand, I think I've figured out that I'm not a particularly big fan of Harry D'Amour. He's fine, but I feel like we're constantly told how badass he is, rather than actually seeing him doing something cool. For the most part, he seems to just blunder through the story, barely making it through alive. This story is often pitched as Pinhead versus Harry D'Amour, but if that was the case, Harry'd be dead on page one. He just doesn't display the competence that we're constantly informed he is supposed to have. Take, for instance, his encounter with Lemerchand's Box. He actually recognizes it for what it is (competence!), but he picks it up and starts playing with it anyway, thinking to himself that he can stop before it goes too far. As a reader, you're just sitting there in shock that a character who is supposedly smart when it comes to the supernatural is doing something so utterly stupid. He does slightly better as the story proceeds, but that's mostly just because he's so ineffective that no one actually considers him a threat, and thus he can act as Pinhead's witness.
Hell is always an interesting place to visit, and Barker's hell is an interesting one. A bleak, blasted landscape filled with impossible architecture and grotesque creatures, not to mention an almost bureaucratic streak that runs through everything, Pinhead guides us through it all with aplomb (Harry just follows along in Pinhead's footsteps like a dope). We're eventually treated to a glimpse of the morning star himself, Lucifer, and what follows is a well plotted and interesting confrontation. The ending seems oddly appropriate, though I have no idea where hell is supposed to go from here...
So was it worth the wait? It doesn't really feel like it, but that doesn't make the book bad either. It's clearly missing the edge that Barker's earlier work so astutely captures, but it's still worthwhile and actually quite entertaining (if a bit on the perverse side). It was certainly a good Halloween season read, which is all I can ask for...
Sunday, January 11, 2015
The Public Domain
I got curious about the Public Domain recently and was surprised by what I found. On the first day of each year, Public Domain Day celebrates the moment when copyrights expire, enter the Public Domain, and join their brethren, such as the plays of Shakespeare, the music of Mozart, and the books of Dickens. Once in the Public Domain, a work can be freely copied, remixed, translated into other languages, and adapted into stage plays, movies, or other media, free from restrictions. Because they are free to use, they can live on in perpetuity.
Of course, rights are based on jurisdiction, so not all countries will benefit equally every year. In 2015, our neighbors up north in Canada celebrated the entrance of the writings of Rachel Carlson, Ian Fleming, and Flannery O'Connor to the Public Domain (along with hundreds of others). I'd be curious how a James Bond movie made in Canada would fare here in the U.S., as they now have the right to make such a movie. Speaking of the U.S., how many works do you think entered our Public Domain this year?
Not a single published work will enter the Public Domain this year. Next year? Nope! In fact, no published work will enter the Public Domain until 2019. This is assuming that Congress does not, once again, extend the Copyright term even longer than it is now (which is currently the Author's lifetime plus 70 years) - which is how we ended up in this situation in the first place.
I've harped on this sort of thing before, so I won't belabor the point. I was just surprised that the Public Domain was so dead in the United States. Even works that gained notoriety for being accidentally let into the public domain, like It's a Wonderful Life, are being clamped down on. Ironically, It's a Wonderful Life only became famous once it was in the Public Domain and thus free to televise (frequent airings led to popularity). In the 1990s, the original copyright holder seized on some obscure court precedents and reasserted their rights based on the original musical score and the short story on which the film was based. The details of this are unclear, but the result is clear as crystal: it's not aired on TV very often anymore because NBC says they have exclusive rights (and they only air it a couple times a year) and derivative works, like a planned sequel, are continually blocked.
I don't know of a solution, but I did want to reflect on what the year could have brought us. There goes my plans for a Vertigo remake!
Sunday, January 04, 2015
The Year in Books
According to the Gregorian calendar, the earth has completed yet another orbit around the sun, and thus Earthlings like myself are prone to reflect on the previous orbital period or somesuch. I'm still catching up with 2014 movies (as per usual), but expect the annual Movie Awards season to start shortly. I just posted about my year in beer, so now it's time to take a look at what I read this year. I keep track of my book reading at Goodreads, and they have some fancy statistic generator things that are pretty cool, especially since I now have 5 years worth of reading tracked on the site (though, of course, I'd love to see more details).
First up, let's take a look at overall books read:
You can also see the breakout of types of book I read:
So it's been a pretty good year for reading. I certainly did better than last year, though I did find that the Hugo Awards process distorted things perhaps a bit too much. I enjoyed the exercise, and since my membership still applies, I will most likely follow along again in 2015, but I don't know that I will be paying as close of attention in the following years unless this year's Hugos really knock my socks off. It's a good thing to read outside your comfort zone, but at the same time, I didn't particularly love many of the books/stories on last year's ballot. We shall see, I suppose. In the meantime, I've got plenty of stuff to read, so stay tuned.
Sunday, December 28, 2014
Over the past month or so, I've caught up with and finished off the first "season" of Serial, a NPR podcast that spun off from This American Life. It was a 12 week series of podcasts of varying length that attempted to exhaustively cover one murder case from 1999. The devil is in the details, and if you're fond of that saying, you'll probably enjoy Serial (I am and I did!) You'll be safe for the next few paragraphs, but there will be a spoiler warning later in the post.
The case covers how a popular high school senior, Hae Min Lee, was murdered by her ex-boyfriend and classmate Adnan Syed. He claims innocence, but the prosecution had a witness named Jay who says that he did it. It's an interesting case, especially once you start digging into the details, but that's not why the podcast is great. The creator, Sarah Koenig, takes a very active role in the podcast, such that it's not really about the murder so much as her perspective on the murder and how she reacts to the various pieces of evidence or, more frequently, how difficult it is to actually piece together coherent evidence.
Therein lies the strength of Serial, the stubborn insistence that it's extremely difficult to piece together the details of what happened 6 weeks ago (and even moreso 15 years ago). It's one of the first points the podcast makes, asking several people (unrelated to the case in question) what they were doing 6 weeks ago (no one could confidently remember in detail), and it's something that comes up repeatedly throughout the series.
Watching TV shows like CSI or Bones makes it seem easy to figure out in minute detail exactly what happened in the past, but that's clearly not the case in real life. One of the most amusing examples in the podcast is the alleged payphone outside of a Best Buy store: no one can confirm that it ever existed. Best Buy doesn't remember, the phone company doesn't know, blueprints show a space for a payphone inside the building (but no one remembers that either), and so on. The case against Adnan definitely depends on that phone being there, but no one can corroborate it (though it does seem unlikely that no one would have noticed that the phone didn't exist during the investigation and later trial, it's still a good example of how difficult it is to piece things together). It's probably worth remembering this sort of stuff the next time some sort of controversial crime is committed or even the next time you get angered by something as trivial as a tweet or something like that.
The other interesting thing about Koenig's perspective is that it seems pretty clear that she entered into this case because she thought there was a fair chance that Adnan was innocent. This is not at all unusual, but it is an interesting look at how media bias shapes the way stories are pursued (it would be a great story if Adnan was innocent, perhaps not so much if he wasn't and the courts got it right). To her credit, Koenig doesn't seem to ignore any of the evidence that looks bad for Adnan, and indeed, spends a lot of time on those aspects of the story. This again gets back to the difficulty in piecing together events from the past. Koenig doesn't downplay any of the evidence, but there are so many holes in the story that it's hard to know what actually happened.
(Here be the Spoilers) And in the end, after over a year's worth of investigation, Koenig still doesn't know. In the final episode, she does personally come down on Adnan's side, but only in an "innocent until proven guilty" sorta way. She just doesn't know enough about what actually happened to Hae to say for sure that Adnan actually did murder her. She says that if she was on the jury, she would vote to acquit. Having listened to her perspective for 12 weeks worth of podcasts, I would probably agree, except what do I know but what Koenig presented to me? There's a reason that a trial has two opposing advocates. I mentioned earlier that Koenig "doesn't seem to ignore any of the evidence", but how would I know that?
At the very start of the series, I was immediately reminded of Errol Morris's documentary The Thin Blue Line, which covers a case in which a police officer is killed in Dallas, Texas. Morris has stated that he started this project with a specific goal in mind (I won't go into too much detail here because it's a film you should watch and I don't want to ruin anything), and unlike Koenig, he actually got to that endpoint. The movie actually had a tangible impact on the system, eventually causing decisions to be overturned on appeal. Again, Morris embraced his subjectivity in making this movie. He was almost taunting the viewer through his use of non-linearity, editing, and even visual cues like lighting and framing.
Did Koenig do something similar in Serial? The podcasts are primarily comprised of her direct address to the listeners. She frequently plays audio recordings of calls with Adnan, police interviews, and even court proceedings, but they are usually very short clips. She also attacks the case from multiple angles, thus leading to a non-linearity that also reminded me of Morris' documentary. And while it's clear that she spent a long time pouring through documents, evidence, and audio, it's not entirely clear how much was left out in the interest of streamlining the story. This sounds overly cynical and paranoid, I'm sure, but that's kind of the point, isn't it? How do we know what happened? With the case, with the podcast, with anything!?
That might sound like a copout, but it's not. It's a simple recognition that sometimes the Truth is not always knowable. A project like Serial or The Thin Blue Line could lead to revelations, as it did with the latter, or with a big fat question mark, as it did with former. Sometimes you still need to make a decision, even when you don't have all the facts you would like. Ultimately, assuming Koenig to be trustworthy (and I have no reason to really doubt her, despite the above), I'd have to agree with her conclusion. There's no real answer, but I don't know that the evidence was clear enough to convict someone either.
I've often wondered about The Thin Blue Line - was Morris just lucky? How did he know to keep pushing the established story? How do you select a case for this sort of thing? How much time do you spend investigating before you decide whether to continue or not? When and why would you consider giving up on a case? Serial has been a resounding success, and it appears that there will be a "Season 2" of the podcast, so perhaps this will be one of the things Koenig addresses. It would be entirely fitting with the general tenor of the series so far. (In case it's not abundantly clear, if you are reading this and enjoyed Serial, I highly recommend checking out The Thin Blue Line, currently available on Netflix Instant!)
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
6WH: Season's Readings
During the Six Weeks of Halloween, I like to read a few tales of terror in addition to the usual onslaught of trashy horror films that I normally gravitate towards. Some of these are perfect fits, others are less so, but I read them anyways... So here are a few things I've read during holiday horror seasons:
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
The Book Queue
It's hard to believe that my last published book queue was over a year ago, though I guess you could say that the Hugo Award nominees were a de facto queue early on in the year. Now that the Hugos are over, I've moved on to some other things. At first I wanted some palate cleansers, but once I realized that my supporting membership this year enables me to nominate and vote on next year's awards, I'm back on the hunt for new and interesting SF. Recommendations are welcome, but I have already compiled a pretty lengthy list (a few of which, I've already started...), so let's see what's coming up:
Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Don't care how I want it now!
We are living in the age of on-demand media, so this post might rankle some of those who read it. For the uninitiated, Lent started a week ago, and it's got me thinking about the nature of sacrifice. I always hated Lent growing up, but as an adult, I've found it an invaluable way to break bad habits and/or try new things. 40 days is an excellent length of time to give something up. It's short enough that it's achievable, but long enough that your routine can be changed for the better. I actually wrote that a couple days ago in reference to a little beer hiatus (er, quasi-hiatus) I'm going through, but the notion of delayed gratification is powerful, and it applies to lots of other things. Namely, media.
What got me started on this post was Neil Gaiman's eloquent response to a fan's query about the growing dissatisfaction that George R.R. Martin takes so damn long between installments of A Song of Ice and Fire. In short, Gaiman said "George R.R. Martin is not your bitch." And he is correct.
I consume a lot of media. Television, movies, books, you name it. I find it astounding that this sort of thing is possible. On Sunday, I posted a list of TV shows I'd like to catch up with. I probably won't watch all of it, because it's likely that I won't particularly love all of it. But I can just about guarantee that I'm going to get hooked on one of those shows and burn through several seasons in a couple weeks. It's fantastic when it happens, and the novelty whore inside of me rejoices, but it is never sustainable. When I think of the amount of work that goes into producing a TV show, my mind boggles. Hundreds of people working thousands of person-hours, all to produce something that can be consumed in 22-42 minutes (pay-cable TV shows have a higher range of 50-60 minutes or so, but the point holds). Obviously, I'm not the only viewer, but it's still a wide discrepancy. Binging is fun and it's really awesome to hit that great show high, but the show will invariably end (or you'll catch up with it and have to wait agonizing weeks or months, months I tell you, before a new episode airs) and that can lead to a serious crash, followed by withdrawal symptoms.
Writers are a little different in that they are a single person, but they're no different in terms of the amount of work they put in to write, and the corresponding pittance we spend reading their work. Someone like George R.R. Martin is writing an obscenely long story, with dozens of main characters and a convoluted plot. It's going to take him a lot of time to keep it all straight, write the story, edit the story, go through the obscenely long publication process, etc... I can accept that. But then, I would say that, as I've not read any of his books (though I am currently whinging about having to wait for Season 4 of Game of Thrones). Still, I think it's fair to say that the dude's earned his time, and we the readers aren't really entitled to anything. It would, of course, be really nice if he would, you know, finish the series. He's not getting any younger, and it's not like certain fears are entirely unfounded (on the other hand, by all accounts, that particular situation turned out pretty well.)
There is some hand wringing that occurs when an author takes time away from a series (that they haven't finished yet, jeeze!) to dedicate time to other things. But as Gaiman notes, writers aren't machines. They're just people, and sometimes they get worn out or inspired by something else. Maybe that something else will be another book, and maybe no one will buy it because they're frustrated at not getting the series book they wanted. Then the author becomes a victim of their own success. That would be a crushing situation for them, but I suspect it doesn't happen that often. The word "fan" is short for "fanatic", and despite what you may think from reading vitriolic comments on the internet, most people aren't really that fanatical about this stuff.
There are plenty of authors that I wish would publish more often. Neal Stephenson only publishes something once every 3-4 years (come to think of it, Reamde came out 2.5 years ago, and I don't know what's next - oh noes!) I've read just about every published word that guy's written, from his lowly first novel, to his pseudonymous novels, to non-fiction and op-eds. And you know what? That entitles me to nothing. Stephenson isn't obligated to write another word. I'm sure there are folks who look at his work on projects like Clang and get frustrated because it seems like he's not working on his next novel. But then, Stephenson has been very clear about his writing habits. Mainly, he finds that he can get the best results by writing a few hours a day, after which he gets burnt out and needs to engage in something else to clear his head (or allow his subconscious to work stuff out so that he can write stuff the next day). Eminently reasonable, and he's very clear and upfront about that. Plus, his books are great.
I was supremely disappointed about some aspects of John Scalzi's The Human Division. He sold the book as a series of short stories and novellas that could be put together in the end to tell a whole story. Only, it didn't. The book ends on a cliffhanger. Then he admits that he did this before he even knew if he could get the follow-up published, which just seems wrong. Fortunately, he did get the go-ahead from his publisher, so the sequel is forthcoming (and will hopefully resolve the story). In the meantime, he's publishing a different novel, which I'm actually looking forward to. So all is well, I guess, but this does bring up a good point about how authors interact with fans.
And here's where I go all Gollum to the above's Smeagol. Authors (or any creators) are not obligated to write what fans want or even really to interact with fans. But it is possible to interact poorly. I was upset and felt deceived by Scalzi's quasi-bait-and-switch with The Human Division, but then, he was really good about asking for feedback and (seemingly) taking it to heart. So I don't hold it against him at all that he went and wrote another novel before working on the sequel to The Human Division. I'm not entitled to anything in this situation, but I think it's fair to say that if Scalzi does start promoting the sequel, that he should be clear about what he's delivering.
But Scalzi's a bad example, because he's really good at that sort of thing and the sequel is forthcoming and even if it doesn't complete the story, I'm sure he'll finish it off at some point in the near future. And again, writing an unrelated novel (or working on other projects) between entries in the series? That's fine too. But there is an extreme here that can be extremely frustrating, and his name is Clive Barker.
About 20 years ago (Jesus, has it really been that long?), I read a great book called The Great and Secret Show. One of the best openings I've ever read in a story, and the rest of the book wasn't too shabby either. It was the first Book of the Art, a planned trilogy, and it was published in 1989. Five years (and two other novels, including the most excellent and rather epic Imajica) later, and the sequel came out. Everville was not nearly as compelling as the first novel, but then, middle parts of a trilogy often feel that way when isolated from their siblings. So I waited. And waited. Barker has published 9 novels in the interim, worked on several plays, painted a crapton of artwork, produced some movies, and probably a bunch of other stuff I don't even know about. And he hasn't been silent on the third Book of the Art (you'll need to scroll down past all the other "current" projects he has going on). He's been talking about it in interviews since 1990. In 1996, he said "The final part of the Art Trilogy will be published before the end of the century, I promise!" Well, fourteen years after the turn of the century, and we're still not that close. He wants to finish his Abarat books first, and he's got two of them left.
As I understand it, this third book is going to be massive and ambitious, so I get it, it will take a while, and I'm sure he's burnt out on it a few times and worked on other stuff. But 20 years? That's pushing it a bit, dontcha think? He's still not obligated to deliver it just because I want it, but I think you can understand the frustration fans are going through right now.
Back to the Smeagol side, Barker is ambitious and clearly very excited about wayyy too many things. There's a good chance that this sort of thing is what lead me to enjoy his work in the first place. And I really do believe he'll eventually finish out the Art books, if only because we've had the relatively recent news that The Scarlet Gospels is completed and with the publisher (looking at a 2015 release). This is another novel he's been talking about delivering since the early 1990s, though in fairness, when he originally brought it up, it was going to be a short story, and it will be published next year as a 243,000 word behemoth. So when he says he'll finish off Abarat and move on to the final Art book, I'm on board. But I ain't expecting it anytime soon.
The digital era is the bearer of great tidings, and while there are often frustrating and arbitrary constraints tied to it (and those should totes be fixed, they are not covered under this immunity that artists and creators get), artists are not obligated to deliver exactly what we want all the time. 20 years may be pushing it, Clive, but what can I really do about it? I can scream "Don't care how I want it now!" at the top of my lungs, but acting childish on the internets isn't going to get me anywhere and it's not going to help Clive finish his book. So let's show some self control and glory in the knowledge that delayed gratification can be oh so very sweet.
Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Anne Leckie's debut novel, Ancillary Justice, has been garnering much critical praise and awards hype (I suspect it will be a Hugo nominee). It's a space opera tale of betrayal and revenge, though that description doesn't really do it justice. While it does contain typical pot-boilery elements like that, it's also got a lot of ambitious but subtle social explorations embedded in its worldbuilding, as does most of the best science fiction.
The story alternates between past and present threads, weaving the timeframes together in such a way that each informs the other. In the beginning, we are introduced to Breq, a former soldier on a quest for revenge. She's come to an isolated, icy planet in search of the means for her revenge. Through the alternating timelines of each chapter, we learn that Breq used to be a segment in an artificial intelligence that ran a ship called Justice of Toren. There are layers of hierarchy and organization, but basically these ships are comprised of networked groups of Ancillaries, dead human bodies with the AI embedded into them. This is not a conceit or an idea for the sake of ideas; the exploration of this sorta post-human existence is the primary driving force behind the book. In Breq, a single body separated from her whole, we get a unique perspective on this sort of existence.
For her part, Leckie is able to establish all of this without resorting to excessive info-dumps. This is initially disorienting (though not as much as, say, The Quantum Thief), as the thread set in the past sometimes reads like a Pynchon novel, with the one AI's perspective shifting from Ancillary to Ancillary with each new sentence. It's disorienting because they're the same person, but they're thousands or even millions of miles away from each other, but once you get the hang of it, it works (in particular, the naming conventions of the various levels of hierarchy can be confusing at first). Interestingly, the more info-dumpy segments come later in the book, but by that point, you're wrapped up in the story enough that this information is happily received.
So the way the AI ships work is one aspect of the worldbuilding that works very well, but the other aspect is the social one. Being a space opera, we're of course talking about galactic empires and wars and such, but the empire that Leckie has established here is truly a fascinating one. The Radch are the dominant human society in the galaxy, having steadily annexed planet after planet over a 2000 year period. Of course, annexation in this context is a just a pretty word for conquered. The humans on an annexed planet that resist are killed and turned into ancillaries, which are then turned against the people. Comprehensive surveillance at the hands of Ancillaries makes it difficult to resist, but that's just the Radchaai way. Even the soldiers who are doing the annexing, the Radch citizens, do not receive any privacy. This goes on until a planet is pacified, and the Radch sink their hooks into the planets economy, leveraging gains (in both wealth and ancillaries) to annex other worlds. So basically, the Radch are not very pleasant folks. The Radchaii are lead by someone named Anaander Mianaai, who is very much like the artificial consciousness that run Radch ships in that she is comprised of many networked bodies. She's also near immortal and has basically been the Radchaai dictator for 2000 years.
The Radch identify each other mostly through Houses, tribal affiliations that are complicated and corporation-like. One corollary to this is that the Radch do not distinguish between genders, referring to everyone using only female pronouns like "she" and "her" (it is not explained why the female form is chosen over gender neutral ones, like some other authors have used). Breq, our protagonist, is implied to have a female body, but being an artificial intelligence of the Radch, she makes no distinction between male and female for herself or for others. Breq constantly has difficulties identifying gender when she is outside of the Radch empire (as she is in the present-day segments of the story). This aspect of the novel has garnered much praise for its progressive tendencies, though I'm not entirely sure the book means it to be read as a good thing. It certainly does generate some interesting discussion for us readers, but in the context of the book, it's a conceit imposed by a tyrant. Anaander Mianaai is many things, but one thing she will be to the reader is "evil". And the reason for this gender-blindness is simply her will. Just as it's her will to impose comprehensive surveillance on all citizens, or as we discover in the book, to slaughter innocent citizens by the thousands. And this is supposed to be progressive?
It's an interesting perspective, for sure, and while the constant use of female pronouns is initially jarring, it quickly fades away, partially because you get used to it, and partially because the Radch simply don't care and this story doesn't really need it (though it's implied that reproduction happens in a generally traditional manner, with perhaps some SF technological help (which, in itself, implies that the distinction must be made at some point, simply for reproductive purposes)). Still, the more important social structures seem to be the Houses and how they interact. Put simply, there's lots to chew on, and Leckie does seem to be aware of what came before her, as io9 notes:
For people who love science fiction, there are also many little tips of the hat that are pleasing without being intrusive or fan servicey. Breq's division on Justice of Toren are fond of singing, which brings to mind Anne McCaffery's incredible novel of ship consciousness, The Ship Who Sang. And of course the Radch civilization's lack of gender roles is reminiscent of the civilization that Ursula Le Guin describes in The Left Hand of Darkness. But as I was reading, the one comparison I kept making in my mind was to Iain M. Banks, who always reminded us that politics (and people) are far more complicated than most space operas will allow.Incidentally, I'd say this novel blows The Ship Who Sang away when it comes to exploring ship consciousness, but on the other hand, I found Le Guin's novel much more mind-blowing in terms of its gender bending (but then, that's a tough act to follow and not really a fair comparison for this book). And as mentioned recently, I really do need to get up to speed on Ian M. Banks.
So yes, this book has an impressive bit of worldbuilding going on, but it's all revealed slowly through the story, which has plenty of narrative hooks to keep you interested. Mystery, action, typical space opera tropes, an alien race that seems to be truly Alien (capital A, though we've not learned much about them just yet), that ambitious exploration of hive minds, and other ideas that help build and maintain the sensawunda feeling that comes out in the best SF. I really enjoyed the novel, and it's something I'd consider nominating for a Hugo award, if I end up submitting a ballot. As debut novels go, this is an assured effort, and I'm greatly looking forward to the next installment (due in October 2014).
Sunday, January 12, 2014
Hugo Award Season 2014
So we've already begun the general award season, with top 10 lists galore peppering social media and publications, and the more formal awards shows are also getting underway (the Golden Globes are tonight, the Oscar nominations will be announced this week, and so on). For science fiction nerds, the Hugo award is generally considered to be the most prestigious, though the Nebula and Clarke awards also garner a lot of attention in certain circles.
Hugo voters must be involved in some way with the Worldcon SF convention that is held every year in a different location (this year is in London). It's a populist award in that anyone can become a voter, they just need to pay for some level of membership. This strikes me as an interesting balance, as the cost of entry should ensure at least some measure of seriousness in the voters. The Nebulas are given by members of the SFWA, which is its own unique perspective, and the Clarke awards are given by a jury (there are other awards, but these seem to be the most respected, and they represent an interesting range of voting rules).
As I mentioned in my 2013 recap, one thing I was thinking of doing this year was to actually join and vote on the Hugos (at the very least, read all the fiction nominees and vote on them, though I'm sure I'll be able to vote on TV and movie awards too). The nomination period has only just recently opened up, but in all honesty, I don't believe I've read enough to give quality nominations. Excuding non-fiction, I've read 6 things that would qualify as a 2013 release, 2 being novellas (or novelettes?) and 1 being The Human Division, which is basically a series of short stories, novelettes, and novellas slapped together into one book. Of the remaining three, two have a pretty good chance of being nominated anyway and the other is arguably not SF/Fantasy (I'd probably put it in horror/thriller/mystery territory). Of those, I'd consider nominating:
In any case, I'm looking forward to participating in the process this year, and it appears that the annual awards grousing has already started, with Adam Roberts taking a two-pronged approach with his usual style and wit:
SF Awards have, as a rule, much to recommend them; but they have two big flaws. One is the loyalty implied in the descriptor 'fan', in which a shitty work by an author of whom (or a shitty episode of a show of which) one is a fan gets your vote because that's what being a fan means -- it means sticking with your team. Ditto: voting for an author rather than voting for a text. Here the niceness or popularity of a given author may overshadow the merits of the books said author has actually produced. ...I think these are both fair points (and they demonstrate why I'm a bit hesitant to submit my nominations), though perhaps Roberts overstates their importance. Of the four nominations I would make, two are by authors I'd never even heard of, one is a relatively obscure piece of self-published short fiction, and the other is, well, John Scalzi (a frequent nominee that I suspect Roberts would point to as someone who gets works nominated because of who he is regardless of the quality of that particular work). But you'll note that I absolutely won't nominate The Human Division for best novel because it doesn't work very well as a novel (nor, I think, is it really supposed to just yet). Scalzi has definitely been nominated a bunch of times where I don't think the work warranted the inclusion (though Redshirts may not have been one of those times (as a winner, I'm not so sure...)). I'm as big a fan of Neal Stephenson as seems possible, but I doubt I'd have nominated Reamde a couple years ago, as it's not really science fiction (debatable, I guess, but that's definitely not the thrust). So yes, I'm a fan, but of the genre as a whole. I have certain preferences and blind spots, just like anyone else, but that's fine when it comes to populist awards, as my votes get smeared across all the other votes.
As for marketing campaigns and self-promotion by savvy authors on the internets, I'm sure there is an element of that in play, but again, I think Roberts overestimates some aspects of this. Scalzi is a pretty interesting example, as he has a huge following online and engages in exactly what Roberts is decrying here. His books seem to sell well and I'm sure the publishers do a fair amount of publicity for them too. Fortunately, Scalzi has responded to Roberts (in a friendly, amicable way) and I find that I have little to add to that. I will note that I would never in a million years have found The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself if Ian Sales had not built up some form of online audience. It's a self-published work with no expensive marketing campaigns or hype, and I think it kind of odd to begrudge him the notion of letting his blog audience know what is eligible (and in what category - I don't even know if The Eye is a novella, novelette, or short story?)
These are, of course, not new complaints. Last year's dustup made some pretty similar points, and the big issue here is that there's not really a way around it. The Hugos are a populist award, so great but obscure stuff might not make the cut. It seems odd to criticize a populist award for nominating popular works, though I guess the Hugo's position as the most respected SF award does warrant more scrutiny. But that's just the way populist awards work, and that's why awards like the Nebula and Clarke exist (each of which, by the way, are far from perfect in themselves). Anytime anyone puts together a best of anything list, there are bound to be dissenters and rules wonks who complain. In some ways, that's part of the fun! I guess we'll revisit this subject after this year's nominees are announced (which should be sometime in early April). I hope to check in before then with what I've been reading (and I'm already behind on that, actually), so stay tuned.
Posted by Mark on January 12, 2014 at 08:30 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, January 01, 2014
The Year in Books
Another orbital period has passed, which means it's time to recap the year or some such thing. I'm still catching up on movies, and I'll be posting a recap of the year in beer in the next few days too, but let's take a look at my reading for 2013 and see where I'm at. I keep track of my book reading at Goodreads, and they have some fancy statistic generator things (that isn't anywhere near as detailed as I'd like, but hey, I'll take what I can get). Since I've been using the site for a while now, I've got several years worth of stats to compare too.
Let's start with overall books read:
You can also see that I read a small portion of comic book collections and novellas in 2013 as well, but not as many as in 2012. Other stats of note:
So it's been a pretty good year for reading. I certainly didn't get through as much as planned, and I definitely didn't spend as much time reading in 2013, but I think I did pretty well. As for next year, I think I'm going to take a similar approach: read what I want, length be damned. I may also get off my arse and read all the Hugo nominated books this year, something I've always wanted to do. Indeed, I'm pretty sure that I've just read a book that will be nominated in Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, but I'd also like to take a shot at the other (shorter) fiction categories. I'll probably set my sights at a similar 30 books/11,000 pages rate for 2014, but who knows how things will go?
Posted by Mark on January 01, 2014 at 07:21 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
The Book Queue, Halloween Edition
As the Six Weeks of Halloween approaches, I've excitedly been planning the festivities. In a fun way, of course. I'm not a monster, even if that would be appropriate for the season. Anywho, after a few years of this, the horror movie marathon is pretty much on auto-pilot, and I could do that in my sleep. The thing that I've never been very good at, though, is aligning my reading schedule with the 6WH marathon. I managed a decent showing last year, but I kinda lucked into a couple of those choices, so I figured I should put some actual thought into it this year. As such, here's a few things I'm planning to read during the 6WH marathon:
Posted by Mark on September 18, 2013 at 10:49 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, September 04, 2013
Extra Hot Great
I enjoy listening to podcasts, but with a couple of notable exceptions, they tend to be relatively short lived affairs. I get the impression that they are a ton of work, with little payoff. As such, I've had the experience of discovering a podcast that I think is exceptional, only to have it close doors within a month or two of my discovery. Often, there is a big back catalog, which is nice, but it's still depressing that no new episodes are being made. Again, I can't really fault anyone for quitting their podcast - it seems like a lot of work and the general weekly schedule that is seemingly required in order to maintain an audience doesn't make it any easier.
Extra Hot Great was one of those podcasts that I discovered about a month before they decided to call it quits. They had about a year and a half of back episodes, and I really came to love that podcast. Well, the reason they stopped the podcast was that two of the principle players were starting a new business venture in LA, a website called Previously.tv (I have linked to several of my favorite articles from them over the past few months). If you like television, the site is well worth your time.
And now we can all rejoice, because they've brought back the Extra Hot Great podcast! It is, more or less, the same format as the old classic episodes. A topic or two (usually a show or news item), with some irregular but recurring features inbetween (my favorite being "I am not a crackpot", a Grampa Simpson inspired segment where someone lays out their crackpot idea), followed by Game Time, where they come up with absurdly comprehensive and sometimes complicated movie/television/pop culture quizzes and compete against one another (the thing that makes this segment work so well is that Tara and Joe know their shit way better than you, but are probably about equivalent with each other). The old EHG podcast shuffled between movies and TV, but I'm not sure if the Previously.tv incarnation will focus more on TV or not. Nevertheless, I'm excited to see a beloved defunct podcast brought back from the dead, and you should be too!
And while you're at it, take note of your favorite podcasts and enjoy them while you can - maybe write them a good iTunes review, or drop something in the tipjar or something. Chances are, they won't be around forever! For reference, here's my regular stable of podcasts, you should listen to these too!
Posted by Mark on September 04, 2013 at 06:29 PM .: link :.
Sunday, August 18, 2013
SF Book Review, Part 14: WoGF Edition
I recently ran across the 2013 Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge and thought it sounded like fun. The rules are simple: "read 12 books - 1 each by 12 different women authors that you have not read before including 1 random author selection - in 12 months". I've started this a bit later in the year than I'd like, and I'm beding the "that you have not read before" rule a bit on at least one or two selections, but still, I've actually made pretty good progress. Halfway there, actually. Alas, I've found my selections to be a mixed bag.
Posted by Mark on August 18, 2013 at 07:34 PM .: link :.
Sunday, August 11, 2013
The Commonwealth Duo
I have no problems with long books. Even long books that meander down tangents aren't an inherent issue for me. Heck, I can get pretty longwinded myself. My favorite book is Cryptonomicon, a novel filled with so many digressions that I find it hard to even say what it's about. On the other hand, the only reason I can put up with such excess is if I'm engaged. Good characters, good story, interesting ideas, heck, even well written prose can keep me going.
So when I picked up Pandora's Star by Peter F. Hamilton I wasn't immediately turned off by the length or the leisurely pace. On the other hand, clocking in at around a thousand pages, Hamilton had plenty of time to test my patience. It's a bloated book, to say the least. Plus, it's really just the first half of the story and the "sequel", Judas Unchained, is another thousand-plus page novel. In essence, what we have here is a 2000+ page story, split into two books. Again, I have no inherent bias against this sort of length, but in this case, I'm seriously doubting that it needed to be that long. The funny thing is that, over the course of these two books, the story falls together rather nicely. Things mentioned early that may have seemed extraneous generally do play a role later in the story. I ultimately found myself enjoying the series (I certainly would not have completed it otherwise), and there are lots of things I really like about it, but the excessive length was unnecessary.
By way of explanation, let me tell you about how I almost abandoned Pandora's Star. It was only about 100 pages in, and it was our introduction to a character named Justine Burnelli. She's a member of an interstellar dynasty and as we meet her, she's on a "safari" on some planet. She's taking a hyperglider trip across the countryside... and Hamilton lingers on every single detail of the trip, from the tethers on the glider to the flowers on the mountainside, to the tune of about 30 or so pages. Nothing of import actually happens during this trip - she flies over the landscape, that's it. Now, I suppose it does illustrate something about Justine's personality and as a matter of fact, this "hyperglider" thing comes into play later in the story (um, about 2000 pages later). But it's also something that could have been done in about 5 pages.
Now, take that situation and repeat about 100 times (this is no exaggeration, and you could probably jack that number up to 200 or 300), and you'll have an idea of why these two books are so long, and why their length is something of an issue for me. It's not the story that's a problem, it's that Hamilton thinks we need to see every component of every sub-plot. For instance, one of the characters is named Paula Myo. She's basically a galactic detective, and we see her take on a seemingly unrelated case at one point. This is fine in concept - it's an introduction to how formidable she is - but it drags on and on and on for far too long. It turns out that the characters in that case become important later in the story, but the original investigation still didn't warrant as much time as Hamilton spent on them.
Ultimately, after about 500 pages or so, the book does settle into a groove where things actually start happening. And when stuff actually feels important, Hamilton's obsessive focus on detail is much more welcome, if sometimes still a bit overbearing. So there was clearly enough here to keep me going, but I maintain that this could have been at least 25% (if not a full 50% or even more) shorter.
The story begins when an astronomer notices two starts disappeared from the sky in an instant. The speculation is that some advanced society has implemented a Dyson sphere, but why so suddenly? An expedition is put together to answer the myriad questions. Meanwhile, a sorta cult/terrorist group is trying to hunt down an alien called the Starflyer, whom they believe is able to brainwash human beings and thus has been infiltrating the Commonwealth political and economic structures.
As previously mentioned, things start slowly, but eventually pick up. At some point, a war with an alien species (called Primes) breaks out, and that's when things start to get really interesting. The Primes very well realized... and terrifying. Hamilton's detailed style is at its best when he's writing from the Primes' perspective (particularly a Prime known as MorningLightMountain) and when he's detailing battles in this war (and they are epic battles taking place across 20-50 worlds at a time). The Primes are a scary enemy, but their motivations and methods are, well, alien, and Hamilton does a good job exploiting the differences between the Primes and Humans during the battle sequences, as well as overall strategy. The balance of power tips both ways at different times, and it's a war I could see either side (or both sides) losing.
There are far too many characters to summarize right now, even if I focus only on main viewpoint characters. This is definitely a challenge of the book, as you will sometimes go several hundred pages before returning to a given character. Some characters are visited frequently, of course, but others may only have 20-30 pages in the entire two books. Many of them feel rather similar, though I'm not sure if that was intentional or not. There's a weird focus on sex and superficial looks, though again, that might be a reasonable speculation in a universe where comprehensive rejuvenation is available. There were a few characters I actively disliked (notably including a guy named Mark!), but most were approachable enough and easy to spend time with. Sometimes I felt like characters were nothing more than plot delivery devices, but occasionally we get a glimpse into something that humanizes them. I wouldn't call the characters a failing or anything that bad, but they definitely seem to take a back seat to the story and technology.
For the most part, Hamilton touches on every SF trope he can. A galactic civilization called the Commonwealth, with plenty of unique planetary governments. Longevity treatments mean that humans can live indefinitely. Memory inserts and cloning mean that you can be "re-lifed" if you suffer "body-loss". Varying degrees of computer/human interfaces and cyberware. Genetic modifications. All sorts of fancy energy weapons and force fields. FTL travel comes in the form of wormholes. Inside the Commonwealth, these wormholes are set up along with a train system, though once the war starts, spaceships are built. Time travel is even sorta touched on at one point (traveling to the future, so no paradox). He touches on the singularity with a character called the Sentient Intelligence (SI). We run into all sorts of cosmic structures and big pieces of technology like the Dyson spheres. I already mentioned the Primes, but there are several other alien species... In particular, the Silfen are an interesting bunch. They're kinda elf-like and they eschew most technology (and politics/economics, for that matter), choosing instead to wander along their Paths (which are sorta like wormholes, but much less distinct and much more hand-wavey). Other aliens include the High Angel, an alien spaceship that invites anyone who is interested to live in its pods. And there's probably a ton of other stuff I'm leaving out.
Despite Hamilton's tendency to be longwinded, all of this stuff is there for a reason. It all fits together in the end, and each of these technologies plays a role in the story. Even if it didn't need to be this long or include quite so many viewpoint characters, that Hamilton has managed to string all of this together in a way that fits is actually very impressive.
Hamilton's views on technology and its resulting consequences is generally well thought out and logical. While he does touch on a lot of hand-wavey stuff (see list of SF tropes above!), he never takes that too far, and most of it seems to be an approachable extension of current trends. For instance, while he does mention beam weapons and force fields and the like, nuclear bombs are still pretty effective. He speculates about some advancements in that area, but nothing that feels unreasonable. He's set up a truly terrifying alien threat, but he doesn't rely on a deus ex machina to resolve the conflict.
So this is a difficult series for me. On the one hand, it's longer than it needs to be. On the other hand, it's a highly imaginative, epic space opera, and ultimately every engaging to read. In the end, it's something I can recommend for fans of SF who don't mind excessive detail or extremely long books. And if you go into it knowing that the two books are meant to be read as one story, that might make things a little more approachable (I was unaware that the first book would just sorta end without resolving anything, which left a bad taste in my mouth).
Posted by Mark on August 11, 2013 at 12:43 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
Novel Reading Is Bad For You!
This list of actual reasons for admission into the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum from the late 1800s is amazing. It's also amusing, with some seemingly legitimate (but still funny) options, some that seem more medical in nature, and some that are outright bonkers, my favorite of which is "Novel Reading". As Clive Thompson notes, "Back when novels were 'new media', cultural elites soberly inveighed against their addictive, mind-altering qualities." Heh. This reminds me of Steven Johnson's thought exercise in Everything Bad is Good For you, where he applies current thinking about video games to novels.
Imagine an alternate world identical to ours save one techno-historical change: videogames were invented and popularized before books. In this parallel universe, kids have been playing games for centuries -- and then these page-bound texts come along and suddenly they're all the rage. What would the teachers, and the parents, and the cultural authorities have to say about this frenzy of reading? I suspect it would sound something like this:Man, novels sure are bad for us. Reading this post alone is probably going to destroy your life. I'm so sorry!
Posted by Mark on July 17, 2013 at 08:12 PM .: link :.
Sunday, July 14, 2013
The Book Queue, 2013 Update
It's only been about 4 months since the last book queue post, but I've already knocked off about half that list (out of 10 posted, 5 books completed, one other started) and while that might not sound like a lot, keep in mind that at least a couple books were behemoths like Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which is a long, dense, philosophical, mathematical text that has been sitting on my shelf unread for about 5 years. And naturally, I've read plenty of things that weren't in the queue, because I'm fickle like that. So sue me.
The notion of only reading long epics is certainly not going to fly all year long, but I still plan on tackling a few massive tomes just to keep frosty. My Goodreads Reading Challenge is currently set at a reasonable 30 books for the year, but according to my stats, I should be just about equaling the number of pages I read last year (when I hit a 50 book goal). So anyways, here are the holdovers from the last list, and some new ones I'll be tackling in this second half of the year.
The four remaining books from my last queue (note: I began Theodore Rex, but have not yet finished)
Posted by Mark on July 14, 2013 at 05:39 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, June 19, 2013
The Human Division
Every once in a while, a publisher has the bright idea to bring back serialized publishing. If it was good enough for Dickens, it's gotta be good enough for Stephen King, amiright? Indeed, King dabbled with the serial novel form a few times in the mid-90s and early 21st century (remember those skimpy The Green Mile installments popping up in book stores?) Others have too, and there's always been stories published in parts via magazines (often expanded when translated to book form, but still). I don't think it's ever truly caught on, but now that we've reached the internet age and digital publishing has established itself, it's just a lot easier and at the end of the day, you don't have 13 tiny books cluttering up your shelves (as I understand it, they generally come grouped together on your ereader).
With all due respect, I don't care for this approach, which is why I waited until John Scalzi's latest novel, The Human Division, had completed its serial run and made it's appearance as a final novel. I don't begrudge Scalzi the whole grand experiment, but I just don't have the temperament to wait a week between chapters (even if the chapters are self-contained, more on this in a bit). I'm the same way with TV shows, though in some cases I catch up with the series and start watching serially from that point on because I'm really enjoying it. So I may have to put up with it sometimes (and in the case of television, I understand the various forces that conspire to keep a serialized structure), but I don't generally like it. But enough kvetching about the method of publishing, let's get to the good stuff.
I really enjoyed the book. It's not perfect, and there is one thing I'm really annoyed by, but it's still a really fun page-turner. By way of introduction, this one is the fifth book that has been set in Scalzi's Old Man's War universe... and by my reckoning, it's the best since the first. Each book in the series has taken a different perspective on the universe. The first book focuses on the military grunts. The second book focuses on The Ghost Brigades, basically the special forces of this particular universe. It was a solid read and exciting and all that, but in my mind it was plagued by a galactic sized plot hole at the center of the story. The Last Colony is the third book, and it examines the colonists (through the eyes of characters from the first two books). It had some loose ends, but I liked it a lot. And the fourth book is Zoe's Tale, basically a retelling of the third book, but from the perspective of the teenage daughter of the colony leaders. That's a tricky approach, but I think Scalzi cleared the bar, even if it suffers from similar loose ends to the third book.
Being a serialized book, The Human Division is a bit more disjointed, but the main narrative thrust of the story is told from the perspective of the Diplomatic Corps. It picks up after the events of The Last Colony and Zoe's Tale, and without giving too much away from those earlier stories, the human factions of the story are taking a decidedly more diplomatic approach than they used to. Most of the stories surround the crew of the Clarke, a small diplomatic vessel manned by what is generally considered to be the "B" Team. They tend to bumble along most of the time, but during periods of extreme stress, they do manage to get things done.
The chapters of the book tend to alternate between tales of the Clarke, and other various one-off stories. The Clarke stories are the best of the lot, at least partly because we get to know those characters the best. Lieutenant Harry Wilson tends to be the one causing the most problems, or rather, discovering most of the problems and devising ingenious solutions. He gets into lots of shenanigans, and it's all great fun. Wilson is actually a character from the first book, and it's always great to return to him. The one-off chapters are a little more hit-or-miss. Some are great, some are just fine. Those "fine" ones (I'm looking at you, "A Voice in the Wilderness") are sometimes almost completely irrelevant to the rest of the story. Most of them seem to center around a sorta shadowy conspiracy that hasn't quite been defined just yet. They're self contained and I liked all of them, but Scalzi doesn't always come back to their characters. Given the episodic nature of the book, it's not really a complaint, and I like it when the author lets the universe breath a little.
Each story is mostly self contained, yielding a feeling very similar to that of a television series (indeed, this seems to be what Scalzi was going for, calling each chapter an "Episode"). There is an overarching plot, mostly centering around that conspiracy, but the focus is more on each individual story and resolving those conflicts. There is some refresher courses on the events of the earlier books in the series (totally understandable), but also a little repetition amongst the episodes themselves, almost as if Scalzi was expecting people to skip around. That's ultimately a very minor flaw though, and each story works pretty well in its own right. They're all filled with Scalzi's trademark witty banter and humor, but also with clever little mysteries or conundrums that spark that sensawunda feeling every now and again. Some of them are bit predictable (Checkov's gun abounds here - if Scalzi mentions a long lost artifact in passing, you can bet that Wilson will probably stumble onto it by accident and almost spark a diplomatic disaster...), but that didn't actually diminish the stories at all (for me, at least).
Also like a TV series, the ending of the book is something of a cliffhanger. The immediate conflict is resolved, but it feels like we've only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ultimate driving forces behind this book. It feels like the end of a season of TV, but that's not necessarily that satisfying either. It's not the worst offender in that respect (more on that in a later post, as I just finished a different book that basically just ran out of pages - apparently I have another 1000 page brick to get through to get any sense of closure at all). Anyways, Scalzi has announced that The Human Division has been renewed for a "Second Season". Again I don't begrudge him his cute experimental serial book as TV series metaphorical setup, but I really hope this second season finishes what has been started here. Scalzi is mildy prolific, so I'm hoping for a quick turnaround on this next season, but even then, we've probably got at least a year before the next book hits (I'm guessing it will be serialized as well).
Ultimately, I still really enjoyed the book and would recommend it. Even though it's probably good as a standalone, it would be worth reading at least the original Old Man's War (or all the other books in the series) first. Despite the cliffhanger, which was a little disappointing, I still like this book overall much better than the other sequels. This is mostly because I'm banking on an actual conclusion in the next installment and I trust that Scalzi can deliver something satisfying. I'd rather not have to wait for it, but such is life!
Posted by Mark on June 19, 2013 at 08:54 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, June 05, 2013
Whedon vs. Martin
This past Sunday's episode of Game of Thrones ended with a doozy of a surprise (at least, for those of us who haven't read the books!), and while we all come to grips with what happened, Joss Whedon is sitting back and laughing. Warning: Many spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones, Buffy, Firefly/Serenity, and probably some other stuff.
The Red Wedding, which is the name given to the sequence whereby several of our Game of Thrones heroes are betrayed and murdered in a brutal fashion, was shocking in its brutality. Whedon saw it from a different perspective though:
Basically, Whedon has a reputation for killing off his most beloved characters on TV shows. George R.R. Martin appears to be giving him a run for his money. Or is he?
Whedon's deaths tend to be emotionally powerful, prompting much in the way of hate mail. He defends these deaths in the name of the story. For instance, when Whedon kills off Wash in Serenity, he claims it was because otherwise, we would all assume the success of our heroes would be a foregone conclusion. The death is absolutely infuriating, not least of which because I'm not particularly sure it achieves its aims. It was a shocking moment in the film, but it was so sudden and so damn pointless, that it didn't really do anything but make me sad. Furthermore, he was killed by faceless Reavers, so it's not like you have anyone to blame... except for Whedon himself.
Contrast that with the Red Wedding. Robb Stark (heir to the iron throne), Talisa (his pregnant wife), and Catelyn (his mother) are all betrayed and slaughtered in the cruelest of fashions (their entire army is killed as well). It was sudden, but not nonsensical. And indeed, the sense of dread had been building for a while. For crying out loud, Talisa had just commented that if their unborn child winds up being a boy, they should name him Eddard (after Eddard Stark, who was also betrayed and killed in season 1). Ned friggen Stark!
Again, I was shocked and saddened by this event, but there are a number of things that make this better than Whedon's brand of murder. First, this is a show with a ton of characters, so there will be plenty of others that will rise up to take Robb's place. Second, the show has already established the danger of getting too attached to characters. Lots of people died on Sunday, but they're but the latest in a long line of tragic deaths and betrayals. Third, Martin is an equal opportunity killer. The blood of villains flows as readily as the heroes, which makes for a nice balancing act, and they're sometimes just a surprising (notable example: Viserys Targaryen, who is "crowned" by Khal Drogo in a fantastic moment). Fourth, 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! The same could be said for the Death of Ned Stark at the hands of Joeffrey (quite possible the most hatable character in television history, who has been built up as such a tremendous douche that his death will have significant cathartic value).
Whedon's use of deaths seem like cheap shots. As emotionally draining as they are, they're actually not that frequent... but in a lot of cases, they probably should be. Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When Whedon killed fan favorite Tara, it was a mere plot convenience for him. A cheap way to up the stakes (and he needed this, as those nerdy villains were kinda lame). So what's the problem? Well, if that's what it takes to die in this show, the non-Buffy characters should have all died in, like, season one. It's a pointless, lazy death.
Whedon certainly has his fans and I actually count myself one of them. Indeed, most of his death scenes are well deserved and well done. Even the ones I hate tend to at least be effective. But I'm not really willing to forgive Wash. Just can't get past that one. So Whedon is right, we should give George R.R. Martin an equivalent reputation for killing his characters (in fact, I think he's had that reputation for a while, it's just that we're finally seeing it on TV). But this isn't a zero sum game: there's plenty of blame to go around, Joss! So congratulations: you both have a reputation for killing beloved characters.
Tangentially, are there any characters on Game of Thrones that you would be devastated to see die? And if not, what does that say about the show? Personally, I think that if Aria was killed, I'd be pretty crestfallen. And maybe Hodor, because I love that guy (though I wouldn't be surprised to see him go). What say you?
Posted by Mark on June 05, 2013 at 08:20 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
The Irony of Copyright Protection
In Copyright Protection That Serves to Destroy, Terry Teachout lays out some of the fundamental issues surrounding the preservation of art, in particular focusing on recorded sound:
Nowadays most people understand the historical significance of recorded sound, and libraries around the world are preserving as much of it as possible. But recording technology has evolved much faster than did printing technology—so fast, in fact, that librarians can't keep up with it. It's hard enough to preserve a wax cylinder originally cut in 1900, but how do you preserve an MP3 file? Might it fade over time? And will anybody still know how to play it a quarter-century from now? If you're old enough to remember floppy disks, you'll get the point at once: A record, unlike a book, is only as durable as our ability to play it back.Digital preservation is already a big problem for current librarians, and not just because of the mammoth amounts of digital data being produced. Just from a simple technological perspective, there are many non-trivial challenges. Even if the storage medium/reading mechanisms remain compatible over the next century, there are nontrivial challenges with ensuring these devices will remain usable that far into the future. Take hard drives. A lot of film and audio (and, I suppose books these days too) are being archived on hard drives. But you can't just take a hard drive and stick it on a shelf somewhere and fire it up in 30 years. Nor should you keep it spinning for 30 years. It requires use, but not constant use. And even then you'll need to ensure redundancy because hard drives fail.
Just in writing that, you can see the problem. Hard drives clearly aren't the solution. Too many modes of failure there. We need something more permanent. Which means something completely new... and thus something that will make hard drives (and our ability to read them) obsolete.
And that's from a purely technological perspective. They're nontrivial, but I'm confident that technology will rise to the challenge. However, once you start getting into the absolutely bonkers realm of intellectual property law, things get stupid really fast. If technology will rise to the challenge, IP owners and lawmakers seem to be engaged in an ever-escalating race to the bottom of the barrel:
In Europe, sound recordings enter the public domain 50 years after their initial release. Once that happens, anyone can reissue them, which makes it easy for Europeans to purchase classic records of the past. In America, by contrast, sound recordings are "protected" by a prohibitive snarl of federal and state legislation whose effect was summed up in a report issued in 2010 by the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress: "The effective term of copyright protection for even the oldest U.S. recordings, dating from the late 19th century, will not end until the year 2067 at the earliest.… Thus, a published U.S. sound recording created in 1890 will not enter the public domain until 177 years after its creation, constituting a term of rights protection 82 years longer than that of all other forms of audio visual works made for hire."Sheer insanity. The Library of Congress appears to be on the right side of the issue, suggesting common-sense recommendations for copyright reform... that will almost certainly never be enacted by IP owners or lawmakers. Still, their "National Recording Preservation Plan" seems like a pretty good idea. Again, it's a pity that almost none of their recommendations will be enacted, and while the need for Copyright reform is blindingly obvious to anyone with a brain, I don't see it happening anytime soon. It's a sad state of affairs when the only victories we can celebrate in this realm is grassroots opposition to absurd laws like SOPA/PIPA/ACTA.
I don't know the way forward. When you look at the economics of the movie industry, as recently laid out by Steven Soderberg in a speech that's been making the rounds of late (definitely worth a watch, if you've got a half hour), you start to see why media companies are so protective of their IP. As currently set up, your movie needs to make 120 million dollars, minimum, before you start to actually turn a profit (and that's just the marketing costs - you'd have to add on the budget to get a better idea). That, too, is absurd. I don't envy the position of media companies, but on the other hand, their response to such problems isn't to fix the problem but to stomp their feet petulantly, hold on to copyrighted works for far too long, and to antagonize their best customers.
That's the irony of protecting copyright. If you protect it too much, no one actually benefits from it, not even the copyright holders...
Posted by Mark on May 29, 2013 at 10:46 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
SF/F/H Book Meme
Via SF Signal and Ian Sales, one of them fancy book memes "for a lazy Saturday" which means that here at Kaedrin, we're doing it on Wednesday, because we're cool like that. 12 questions about science fiction, fantasy, and horror books:
1. The last sf/f/h book I read and enjoyed was:
The last Fantasy I read that I really enjoyed was The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold. I don't know that it's as enjoyable as her Vorkosigan books, but I found it very approachable and unlike a lot of fantasy. It's not filled with epic battles or action, instead focusing on the kingdom's court politics and the like. There's magic, but it's limited and relatively consistent. This description might make it sound boring, but it's quite exciting. Will certainly look to read the other two in the series, but Fantasy hasn't been a big focus of mine, so I'll also mention the last SF book I read and really enjoyed: Jack Glass, by Adam Roberts, which I found clever and inventive, but still very approachable. I did a full review a couple weeks ago if you want to read more.
2. The last sf/f/h book I read and did not enjoy was:
I didn't hate Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs, but I never really got into it and I wasn't aware that it was the first in a planned series, nor that it would end without any real closure (it's also something I probably wouldn't have read on my own, but it was a book club selection). While I don't have any particular desire to read the next book when it comes out (which does say something, I guess), I didn't really hate the book either... For that, I'd probably go with Fool Moon, by Jim Butcher. I actually like the concept and universe of the Dresden Files series (including the first book, which was solid and fun), but I pretty emphatically disliked this one. I may revisit the series again someday, but this one turned me off of it for a while, at least.
3. A sf/f/h book that I would recommend to new sf/f/h readers is:
The two books that immediately come to mind are Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card and Old Man's War, by John Scalzi. Both focused on military, kinda mirror images of each other, actually, with one focused on training young children to face a threat, and the other focusing on recruiting old people to fight wars. Both have good ideas (the hallmark of good SF), but are also page-turners and relatively short, addictive reads. I know Orson Scott Card has engendered quite a bit of scorn for his unpopular political views, but there's no diatribes against gay marriage in Ender's Game, and it's probably worth catching up with the book before seeing the movie, which will probably be terrible (though who knows, maybe it'll be ok).
4. A sf/f/h book that I would recommend to seasoned sf/f/h readers is:
This is a tough one for me. I'd say that I read a fair amount, but compared to many, I guess you'd say that I'm more lightly seasoned than fully seasoned. I'm at a bit of a loss here. I'm still working my way through the best-of lists and classics of the genre, so I'll just throw the first thing that comes to mind out there, which is Diaspora, by Greg Egan. It's a big, sprawling hard science fiction novel, lots of big, challenging ideas, and Egan's famous focus on really hard SF. Egan is probably more famous for Permutation City (also a very worthy read that I only recently caught up with), but I'm guessing most seasoned SF readers have already tackled that one (which is somewhat more approachable than Diaspora).
5. The sf/f/h book I most want to read next is:
Well, the next book I'll probably read is John Scalzi's just released (well, sorta) The Human Division (which is actually the latest in the aforementioned Old Man's War series). After that, I have several books in the queue, though I'm not sure what I'd hit up.
6. My favorite sf/f/h book series includes:
This is actually a really easy one, seeing as though I just read through Lois McMaster Bujold's entire Vorkosigan Saga (16 books in total, with a few short stories thrown in for good measure) and loved most of them, particularly the 4 book stretch starting with Mirror Dance and concluding with A Civil Campaign (check out my post on the series for more).
7. I will read anything by this sf/f/h author:
This is an easy one: Neal Stephenson. I think that I've read every single thing he's ever published at this point, from the lowliest short story or editorial, to his sprawling masterpieces like Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle, and Anathem. Definitely my favorite author, though Bujold has come on strong lately, and I do find myself reading most of what Scalzi publishes these days.
8. The first sf/f/h book I read was:
I'm honestly not positive about this, but I'm going to go with A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle or Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain series, both of which I think read while I was in the sixth grade. I even remember writing a Prydain-inspired story for school called The Land of Analak (or something like that, I'll have to see if I can dig up my copy of that sucker sometime).
9. The sf/f/h book I'm most surprised that more people don't like is:
These questions are getting harder, but one book I find consistently underrepresented in best-of lists is Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, a superb and harrowing entry in the tired first contact subgenre. I don't know why it doesn't get more love.
10. The sf/f/h book I'm surprised so many people do like is:
The problem with this question is that I can think of plenty of books that I don't love that are revered by many, but I can see why they would be so popular too - so it's not exactly surprising that, say, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin or Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein have big followings. I don't mean to say that I hate those books or that I found nothing of value there, but I didn't really enjoy them. However, I can see their influence all over SF, so it's hard to be surprised that people love them. That being said, I'm going to have to leave them as my answer, because I'm drawing a blank otherwise.
11. The most expensive sf/f/h book I own is:
I have no idea here. I don't have anything notably collectible, maybe a few first edition Hardcovers purchased in the course of regular reading. I suppose the thing that comes closest is Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday The 13th, by Peter Bracke. It's a big, full color book filled with imagery, and I bought it when it was out of print. It's back in print now, but even a new copy is relatively expensive (approx $35). I think I paid somewhere on the order of $50 for a first or second edition copy at some point, so there's that.
12. The number of sf/f/h books I own and have yet to read is:
Surprisingly few, at this point. I'm pretty good about not building up a pile of shame, but a couple years ago, I probably had 10-15 unread books laying around. I knocked most of them out last year and I'm left with a couple Philip K. Dick books I bought during a sale a few months ago. The Kindle has been a great enabler in this respect, as it allows for instant gratification...
Posted by Mark on May 22, 2013 at 08:39 PM .: link :.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
I mentioned the other week that Amazon released 14 pilot episodes for original series. They haven't made a decision about which series will get picked up, but I watched a bunch, so here are some thoughts. High level summary: "Meh."
Posted by Mark on May 19, 2013 at 08:19 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Weird Book of the Week
At this rate, the Weird Movie of the Week category of this blog will soon contain more non-movies than actual movies. Nevertheless, this one was too good to pass up, and it's brilliance only really requires a picture of the cover of the book: The Right to Arm Bears. That's just glorious, is it not? It turns out that it's really just another in a long line of mildly misleading covers and ridiculous artwork from Baen Books (a publisher I actually really like, but damn their covers are just awful). The book is actually an omnibus of three older, out of print books ( "Spacial Delivery", "Spacepaw", and "The Law-Twister Shorty"), none of which approaches the titular splendor of "The Right to Arm Bears" (though "Spacepaw" ain't half bad). It's true, these books are about humans interacting with an alien species of giant, intelligent bears, but I'm guessing they don't dress up in special forces gear, chew a cigar, wear berets, or tote human weaponry around. The synopsis isn't quite as bonkers as the cover:
Planet Dilbia is in a crucial location for both humans and their adversaries, the Hemnoids. Therefore making friends with the Dilbians and establishing a human presence there is of the utmost importance, which may be a problem, since the bearlike Dilbians stand some nine feet tall, and have a high regard for physical prowess. They're not impressed by human technology, either. A real man, er, bear doesn't need machines to do his work for him.Reviews seem middling to poor, actually, though I have to give credit to the guy who titled his review "A bearable read". Well played, sir. (Hat tip to Justin, who has some more great/horrible covers.)
Posted by Mark on May 15, 2013 at 10:17 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, May 08, 2013
I have, for the most part, been very pleased with using my Kindle Touch to read over the past couple years. However, while it got the job done, I felt like there were a lot of missed opportunities, especially when it came to metadata and personal metrics. Well, Amazon just released a new update to their Kindle software, and mixed in with the usual (i.e. boring) updates to features I don't use (like "Whispersinc" or Parental Controls), there was this little gem:
The Time To Read feature uses your reading speed to let you know how much time is left before you finish your chapter or before you finish your book. Your specific reading speed is stored only on your Kindle Touch; it is not stored on Amazon servers.Hot damn, that's exactly what I was asking for! Of course, it's all locked down and you can't really see what your reading speed is (or plot it over time, or by book, etc...), but this is the single most useful update to a device like this that I think I've ever encountered. Indeed, the fact that it tells you how much time until you finish both your chapter and the entire book is extremely useful, and it addresses my initial curmudgeonly complaints about the Kindle's hatred of page numbers and love of percentage.
Will finish this book in about 4 hours!
And I love that they give a time to read for both the current chapter and the entire book. One of the frustrating things about reading an ebook is that you never really knew how long it will take to read a chapter. With a physical book, you can easily flip ahead and see where the chapter ends. Now, ebooks have that personalized time, which is perfect.
I haven't spent a lot of time with this new feature, but so far, I love it. I haven't done any formal tracking, but it seems accurate, too (it seems like I'm reading faster than it says, but it's close). It even seems to recognize when you've taken a break (though I'm not exactly sure of that). Of course, I would love it if Amazon would allow us access to the actual reading speed data in some way. I mean, I can appreciate their commitment to privacy, and I don't think that needs to change either; I'd just like to be able to see some reports on my actual reading speed. Plot it over time, see how different books impact speed, and so on. Maybe I'm just a data visualization nerd, but think of the graphs! I love this update, but they're still only scratching the surface here. There's a lot more there for the taking. Let's hope we're on our way...
Posted by Mark on May 08, 2013 at 08:42 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
The State of Streaming
So Netflix has had a good first quarter, exceeding expectations and crossing the $1 Billion revenue threshold. Stock prices have been skyrocketing, going from sub 100 to over 200 in just the past 4-5 months. Their subscriber base continues to grow, and fears that people would use the free trial to stream exclusive content like House of Cards, then bolt from the service seem unfounded. However, we're starting to see a fundamental shift in the way Netflix is doing business here. For the first time ever, I'm seeing statements like this:
As we continue to focus on exclusive and curated content, our willingness to pay for non-exclusive, bulk content deals declines.I don't like the sound of that, but then, the cost of non-exclusive content seems to keep rising at an absurd level, and well, you know, it's not exclusive. The costs have risen to somewhere on the order of $2 billion per year on content licensing and original shows. So statements like this seem like a natural outgrowth of that cost:
As we've gained experience, we've realized that the 20th documentary about the financial crisis will mostly just take away viewing from the other 19 such docs, and instead of trying to have everything, we should strive to have the best in each category. As such, we are actively curating our service rather than carrying as many titles as we can.And:
We don't and can't compete on breadth with Comcast, Sky, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Sony, or Google. For us to be hugely successful we have to be a focused passion brand. Starbucks, not 7-Eleven. Southwest, not United. HBO, not Dish.This all makes perfect sense from a business perspective, but as a consumer, this sucks. I don't want to have to subscribe to 8 different services to watch 8 different shows that seem interesting to me. Netflix's statements and priorities seem to be moving, for the first time, away from a goal of providing a streaming service with a wide, almost comprehensive selection of movies and television. Instead, we're getting a more curated approach coupled with original content. That wouldn't be the worst thing ever, but Netflix isn't the only one playing this game. Amazon just released 14 pilot episodes for their own exclusive content. I'm guessing it's only a matter of time before Hulu joins this roundalay (and for all I know, they're already there - I've just hated every experience I've had with Hulu so much that I don't really care to look into it). HBO is already doing its thing with HBO Go, which exlcusively streams their shows. How many other streaming services will I have to subscribe to if I want to watch TV (or movies) in the future? Like it or not, fragmentation is coming. And no one seems to be working on a comprehensive solution anymore (at least, not in a monthly subscription model - Amazon and iTunes have pretty good a la carte options). This is frustrating, and I feel like there's a big market for this thing, but at the same time, content owners seem to be overcharging for their content. If Netflix's crappy selection costs $2 billion a year, imagine what something even remotely comprehensive would cost (easily 5-10 times that amount, which is clearly not feasible).
Incidentally, Netflix's third exclusive series, Hemlock Grove, premiered this past weekend. I tried to watch the first episode, but I fell asleep. What I remember was pretty shlockey and not particularly inspiring... but I have a soft spot for cheesy stuff like this, so I'll give it another chance. Still, the response seems a bit mixed on this one. I did really end up enjoying House of Cards, but I'm not sure how much I'm going to stick with Hemlock Grove...
Posted by Mark on April 24, 2013 at 09:28 PM .: link :.
Sunday, March 03, 2013
The Book Queue, 2013 Edition
Last year, I read for quantity. I mean, obviously I was seeking out quality stuff, but I tended to stay away from long books in the interest of getting through a lot of books. I set a goal of 50 books, and managed to hit it... just barely (depending on how you count novellas). It was a record year in terms of reading, but I didn't want to get stuck in a rut of short books, so I devised this crazy idea of only reading super long epics in 2013. Well, that's not really going to work out, because there are plenty of shorter books I really want to read this year, so I'm just going with the idea of reading whatever I want, length be damned (plus, it's sometimes hard to gauge length anyway.)
So this list is going to focus on longer books, but there will be some occasional short ones too. I'm pretty sure some of these long books are going to be a bear to get through as well, so I will almost certainly not get to all of these books. But it should be an interesting year in reading nonetheless. Only a few of these are holdovers from the previous book queue update, but hopefully I can get through those!
Posted by Mark on March 03, 2013 at 05:07 PM .: link :.
Sunday, February 10, 2013
Netflix's House of Cards
Last weekend, Netflix debuted their highly anticipated original series House of Cards. Based on an old BBC series, starring Kevin Spacey and directed by David Fincher, the show certainly has an impressive pedigree and has been garnering mostly positive reviews. From what I've watched so far, it doesn't quite reach the heights of my favorite television shows, but it's on the same playing field, which is pretty impressive for original content from an internet-based company that was predicated solely on repackaging and reselling existing content from other sources. It's a good show, but the most interesting things about the series are the meta-discussions surrounding the way it was produced and released.
Like the way free music streaming services are changing the narrative of that industry, I'm seeing something similar happening with Netflix... and like the music industry, I don't really know where this will end up. Netflix certainly fell on hard times a couple years ago; after a perfectly understandable price hike and the inexplicable Qwikster debacle their stock price plummeted from 300+ to around 60. Since then, it's been more or less ping-ponging up and and down in the 60-140 range, depending on various business events (earnings reports, etc...) and newly licensed content.
Recently, the stock has been rising rapidly, thanks to new content deals with the likes of Disney and Warner Bros., and now because of House of Cards. Perhaps fed up with wrangling the rising cost of streaming content (which are ever rising at a spectacular pace and cutting into Netflix's meager profit margins), Netflix has started to make their own content. Early last year, Netflix launched Lillyhammer to middling reviews and not a lot of fanfare... I have not watched the series (and quite frankly, the previews look like a parody or SNL sketch or something), but it perhaps represented Netflix's dry run for this recent bid for original content. A lot of the interesting things about House of Cards' release were presaged by that previous series.
For instance, the notion of releasing the entire 13 episode run of the first season on day one of release. Netflix has done a lot of research on their customers' viewing habits, observing that people will often mainline old series (or previous seasons of current series like Mad Men or Breaking Bad), watching entire seasons or even several over the course of a few days or weeks. I've wondered about this sort of thing in the past, because this is the way I prefer to consume content. I can never really get into the rhythm of "destination" television, except in very limited scenarios (the only show I watch on a weekly basis at the time it airs is Game of Thrones, because I like the show and the timeslot fits into my schedule). There are some shows that I look forward to every week, but even those usually get stored away on the DVR until I can watch several at once. So what I'm saying here is that this release of all episodes at once is right up my alley, and I'm apparently not alone.
With the lack of physical shelf space or broadcast schedule needed, I suspect this would also lead to shows actually getting to finish their season instead of being canceled after two episodes, which could be an interesting development. On the other hand, what kinds of shows will this produce? Netflix greenlit this series based on a mountain of customer data, not just about how viewers consumed TV series, but also on their response to Kevin Spacey and David Fincher, and probably a hundred other data-points.
And the series does kinda feel like it's built in a lab. Everything is top notch about the show. Great actors, high production value, solid writing, the show is optimized for that binge-watching experience. Is that a good thing? In this case, it seems to be working well enough. But can that sort of data-driven model hold up over time? Of course, that's nothing new in the entertainment industry. Look no further than the whole vampire/zombie resurgence of the past decade or so. But I wonder if Netflix will ever do something that sets the trends, rather than chasing the data.
What does this all mean for the world of streaming? Netflix appears to have stemmed the tide of defecting subscribers, but will they gain new subscribers simply because of their original content? Will this be successful enough for other streaming players to take the same gamble? Will we have Hulu and Amazon series? Will we have to subscribe to 8 different services to keep up with this? Or will Netflix actually license out their original content to the likes of Cable or Network television? Ok, that's probably unlikely, but on the other hand, it could be a big source of revenue and a way to expand their audience.
Will Netflix be able to keep growing thanks to these original content efforts? House of Cards is just the first of several original series being released this year. Will the revived Arrested Development (season 4, coming in May) draw in new subscribers? Or the new Ricky Gervais show? Will any of this allow Netflix to expand their streaming content beyond the laughable movie selection they currently command (seriously, they have a good TV selection, but their movie selection is horrible)? Will we ever get that dream service, a single subscription that will give you access to everything you could ever want to watch? Technologically, this is all possible, but technology won't drive that, and I'm curious if such a thing will ever come to fruition (Netflix or not!) In the meantime, I'm most likely going to finish off House of Cards, which is probably a good thing for Netflix.
Posted by Mark on February 10, 2013 at 02:01 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
The Streaming Narrative
The NYT laments the sorry state of royalties paid out by music streaming services like Spotify.
A decade after Apple revolutionized the music world with its iTunes store, the music industry is undergoing another, even more radical, digital transformation as listeners begin to move from CDs and downloads to streaming services like Spotify, Pandora and YouTube.So I really don't know enough to comment on whether or not the whole royalty situation for streaming will pan out (or not!) the way some think it will, but the interesting thing here is the narrative.
The NYT credits iTunes with revolutionizing the music world, and in some ways it did, but only by making the revolution legal. The real shift began with file sharing services like Napster. One of the old narratives that the music industry endorsed was that if you liked a song and wanted to own it, you had to also purchase the 10 or so other songs that surrounded it on an album. Napster was free, and while it's ability to enable widespread music theft was probably the cause of its popularity, it also changed that whole album purchasing paradigm. You like "For Whom the Bell Tolls", fine, download it and stick it to that annoying Lars guy. No need to go buy the whole album. Apple, to their credit, realized that the narrative had shifted, and when they implemented iTunes, they allowed customers to purchase only the songs they wanted.
Like I said, the free downloads were probably the main cause of Napster's popularity, but the success of iTunes shows that the whole a la carte idea was also a key component. A decade later, and the narrative is changing again.
The thing that struck me reading the article is that free music streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, while providing truly minimal royalties, also shine a light on another narrative about listening frequency. Namely, once you bought a record, the music industry could care less how often you listened to it. But streaming services aren't based on sales, they're based on "listens" - the number of times you streamed a specific song.
I'm probably the last person in the world who should be commenting on listening habits, as I suck at music. I love it, I'm just bad at keeping up with this stuff and constantly go back to the same well (What? I've got movies to watch, books to read, and beer to drink over here, leave me alone!) All of which is to say that I have to wonder how the metric of "listens" will impact the industry. I tend to listen to the same thing over and over again, and when I do that, I'll probably earn someone a few cents of royalties. But I have a large suspicion that a lot of people will give most music a single listen (especially given the low barrier of entry on streaming), maybe revisiting once or twice if they're really psyched about it.
Music is certainly relistened to more than movies are rewatched, and being more of a movie guy, that might throw off my calibration on this issue, but I really have to wonder about the relationship between sales and listens. Yeah, such and such album or song may have sold a million copies last week... but how long will that song be in heavy rotation in streaming? And when you literally have millions of songs on your fingertips, are you likely to cast your net far and wide, or return to the same music over and over again? Will this notion drive what kinds of music becomes available? More pop music with clear hooks, less experimental stuff? Will those experimental folks be able to survive on the long tail?
I don't have any answers here and I don't really know enough about the music industry to say how this will play out, but I'm thinking we'll see some interesting developments in the next few years. Incidentally, movie streaming doesn't seem to have caved to streaming in the same way. They don't charge streaming services like Netflix per watch, but for the general ability to stream a certain catalog. I'll be curious to see if we ever reach a Spotify-level streaming service for movies. As I've mentioned before, I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon... but again, the next few years will be interesting.
Posted by Mark on January 30, 2013 at 08:30 PM .: link :.
Sunday, January 06, 2013
What's in a Book Length?
I mentioned recently that book length is something that's been bugging me. It seems that we have a somewhat elastic relationship with length when it comes to books. The traditional indicator of book length is, of course, page number... but due to variability in font size, type, spacing, format, media, and margins, the hallowed page number may not be as concrete as we'd like. Ebooks theoretically provide an easier way to maintain a consistent measurement across different books, but it doesn't look like anyone's delivered on that promise. So how are we to know the lengths of our books? Fair warning, this post is about to get pretty darn nerdy, so read on at your own peril.
In terms of page numbers, books can vary wildly. Two books with the same amount of pages might be very different in terms of actual length. Let's take two examples: Gravity's Rainbow (784 pages) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (752 pages). Looking at page number alone, you'd say that Gravity's Rainbow is only slightly longer than Goblet of Fire. With the help of the magical internets, let's a closer look at the print inside the books (click image for a bigger version):
Ebooks present a potential solution. Because Ebooks have different sized screens and even allow the reader to choose font sizes and other display options, page numbers start to seem irrelevant. So Ebook makers devised what's called reflowable documents, which adapt their presentation to the output device. For example, Amazon's Kindle uses an Ebook format that is reflowable. It does not (usually) feature page numbers, instead relying on a percentage indicator and the mysterious "Location" number.
The Location number is meant to be consistent, no matter what formatting options you're using on your ereader of choice. Sounds great, right? Well, the problem is that the Location number is pretty much just as arbitrary as page numbers. It is, of course, more granular than a page number, so you can easily skip to the exact location on multiple devices, but as for what actually constitutes a single "Location Number", that is a little more tricky.
In looking around the internets, it seems there is distressingly little information about what constitutes an actual Location. According to this thread on Amazon, someone claims that: "Each location is 128 bytes of data, including formatting and metadata." This rings true to me, but unfortunately, it also means that the Location number is pretty much meaningless.
The elastic relationship we have with book length is something I've always found interesting, but what made me want to write this post was when I wanted to pick a short book to read in early December. I was trying to make my 50 book reading goal, so I wanted something short. In looking through my book queue, I saw Alfred Bester's classic SF novel The Stars My Destination. It's one of those books I consistently see at the top of best SF lists, so it's always been on my radar, and looking at Amazon, I saw that it was only 236 pages long. Score! So I bought the ebook version and fired up my Kindle only to find that in terms of locations, it's the longest book I have on my Kindle (as of right now, I have 48 books on there). This is when I started looking around at Locations and trying to figure out what they meant. As it turns out, while the Location numbers provide a consistent reference within the book, they're not at all consistent across books.
I did a quick spot check of 6 books on my Kindle, looking at total Location numbers, total page numbers (resorting to print version when not estimated by Amazon), and file size of the ebook (in KB). I also added a column for Locations per page number and Locations per KB. This is an admittedly small sample, but what I found is that there is little consistency among any of the numbers. The notion of each Location being 128 bytes of data seems useful at first, especially when you consider that the KB information is readily available, but because that includes formatting and metadata, it's essentially meaningless. And the KB number also includes any media embedded in the book (i.e. illustrations crank up the KB, which distorts any calculations you might want to do with that data).
It turns out that The Stars My Destination will probably end up being relatively short, as the page numbers would imply. There's a fair amount of formatting within the book (which, by the way, doesn't look so hot on the Kindle), and doing spot checks of how many Locations I pass when cycling to the next screen, it appears that this particular ebook is going at a rate of about 12 Locations per cycle, while my previous book was going at a rate of around 5 or 6 per cycle. In other words, while the total Locations for The Stars My Destination were nearly twice what they were for my previously read book, I'm also cycling through Locations at double the rate. Meaning that, basically, this is the same length as my previous book.
Various attempts have been made to convert Location numbers to page numbers, with low degrees of success. This is due to the generally elastic nature of a page, combined with the inconsistent size of Locations. For most books, it seems like dividing the Location numbers by anywhere from 12-16 (the linked post posits dividing by 16.69, but the books I checked mostly ranged from 12-16) will get you a somewhat accurate page number count that is marginally consistent with print editions. Of course, for The Stars My Destination, that won't work at all. For that book, I have to divide by 40.86 to get close to the page number.
Why is this important at all? Well, there's clearly an issue with ebooks in academia, because citations are so important for that sort of work. Citing a location won't get readers of a paper anywhere close to a page number in a print edition (whereas, even using differing editions, you can usually track down the quote relatively easily if a page number is referenced). On a personal level, I enjoy reading ebooks, but one of the things I miss is the easy and instinctual notion of figuring out how long a book will take to read just by looking at it. Last year, I was shooting for reading quantity, so I wanted to tackle shorter books (this year, I'm trying not to pay attention to length as much and will be tackling a bunch of large, forbidding tomes, but that's a topic for another post)... but there really wasn't an easily accessible way to gauge the length. As we've discovered, both page numbers and Location numbers are inconsistent. In general, the larger the number, the longer the book, but as we've seen, that can be misleading in certain edge cases.
So what is the solution here? Well, we've managed to work with variable page numbers for thousands of years, so maybe no solution is really needed. A lot of newer ebooks even contain page numbers (despite the variation in display), so if we can find a way to make that more consistent, that might help make things a little better. But the ultimate solution would be to use something like Word Count. That's a number that might not be useful in the midst of reading a book, but if you're really looking to determine the actual length of the book, Word Count appears to be the best available measurement. It would also be quite easily calculated for ebooks. Is it perfect? Probably not, but it's better than page numbers or location numbers.
In the end, I enjoy using my Kindle to read books, but I wish they'd get on the ball with this sort of stuff. If you're still reading this (Kudos to you) and want to read some more babbling about ebooks and where I think they should be going, check out my initial thoughts and my ideas for additional metadata and the gamification of reading. The notion of ereaders really does open up a whole new world of possibilities... it's a shame that Amazon and other ereader companies keep their platforms so locked down and uninteresting. Of course, reading is its own reward, but I really feel like there's a lot more we can be doing with our ereader software and hardware.
Posted by Mark on January 06, 2013 at 08:02 PM .: link :.
Sunday, December 30, 2012
The Year in Books
The Earth has once again completed its orbit around the Sun, which for some reason means that we should all take stock of what we did over the past orbital period. I just posted my recap of the year in beer (and yes, I'm recycling the opening of this post, heh) and in accordance with tradition, I'm still catching up on 2012 movies (look for movie recap stuff in mid-January, lasting up through February), but Books are pretty straightforward to recap. I've been keeping track of my book reading via Goodreads for a while now, so with their help, I can compare this year's reading to the past couple.
Let's start with overall books read:
This is evidenced by the longest book I read all year, Lois McMaster Bujold's A Civil Campaign, which clocks in at a paltry 544 pages. For reference, 2011's longest book was Neal Stephenson's Reamde, which was 1044 pages (or, about 10% of what I read that year).
Some more assorted stats about this year's reading:
Anyways, it's been a really good year for reading, and I got through a ton of stuff. Will I read through as much this year? Well, let's try and keep the page numbers equal, but I'm going to say that the overall number of books is going to come way down. Instead of quickly knocking down short novels, I plan to tackle lots of longer books this year, stuff that might take me a while to get through. I'm sure I'll read some shorter stuff too, but I'm probably going to shoot for 25 or so books overall. We'll see where that takes me. More details on that little project to come...
Posted by Mark on December 30, 2012 at 06:35 PM .: link :.
Sunday, December 02, 2012
Companies Don't Force You Into Piracy
But let's be honest with ourselves, that doesn't mean that all those same media companies don't suck. Let me back up a minute, as this is an old argument. Most recently, this article from The Guardian bemoans the release window system:
A couple of months ago, I purchased the first season of the TV series Homeland from the iTunes Store. I paid $32 for 12 episodes that all landed seamlessly in my iPad. I gulped them in a few days and was left in a state of withdrawal. Then, on 30 September, when season 2 started over, I would have had no alternative but to download free but illegal torrent files. Hundreds of thousands of people anxious to find out the whereabouts of the Marine turncoat pursued by the bi-polar CIA operative were in the same quandaryThis is, of course, stupid. This guy does have a pretty simple alternative: wait a few months to watch the show. It's a shitty alternative, to be sure, but that doesn't excuse piracy. As Sonny Bunch notes:
Of course you have an alternative you ninny! It's not bread for your starving family. You're not going to die if you have to wait six months to watch a TV show. You're not morally justified in your thievery.Others have also responded as such:
This argument is both ludicrous, and wrong. Ludicrous, because if piracy is actually wrong, it doesn't get less wrong simply because you can't have the product exactly when and where you want it at a price you wish to pay. You are not entitled to shoplift Birkin bags on the grounds that they are ludicrously overpriced, and you cannot say you had no alternative but to break into an the local ice cream parlor at 2 am because you are really craving some Rocky Road and the insensitive bastards refused to stay open 24/7 so that you could have your favorite sweet treat whenever you want. You are not forced into piracy because you can't get a television show at the exact moment when you want to see it; you are choosing piracy.This is all well and good, and the original Guardian article has a poor premise... but that doesn't mean that the release window system isn't antiquated and doesn't suck. The original oped could easily be tweaked to omit the quasi-justification for piracy. Instead, the piracy is included and thus the article overreaches. On the flip side, the responses also tend to overstate their case, usually including something like this: "you can't have the product exactly when and where you want it at a price you wish to pay." This is true, of course, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating for consumers. And with respect to streaming, the media company stance is just as ludicrous as those defending piracy.
Here's a few examples I've run into:
I get that these are all businesses and need to make money, but I don't understand the insistence on alienating their own customers, frequently and thoroughly. I'm not turning to piracy, I'm just a frustrated customer. I've already bought a bunch of devices and services so that I can watch this stuff, and yet I'm still not able to watch even a small fraction of what I want. Frustration doesn't excuse piracy, but I don't see why I should be excusing these companies for being so annoying about when and where and how I can consume their content. It's especially frustrating because so much of this is done in the name of piracy. I suppose this post is coming off petulant and whiny on my part, but if you think I'm bad, just try listening to the MPAA or similar institution talk about piracy and the things they do to their customers to combat it. In essence, these companies hurt their best customers to spite non-customers. So I don't pirate shows or movies or books, but then, I often don't get to watch or read the ones I want to either. In a world where media companies are constantly whining about declining sales, it's a wonder that they don't actually, you know, try to sell me stuff I can watch/read. I guess they find it easier to assume I'm a thief and treat me as such.
Posted by Mark on December 02, 2012 at 08:19 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Where do you get your ideas?
The answer to this most cliched of interview questions asked of SF authors is, of course, Robert Heinlein. At least for Theodore Sturgeon, it was. In a Guest of Honor speech at a SF convention, Sturgeon recounts an instance of writers block:
I went into a horrible dry spell one time. It was a desperate dry spell and an awful lot depended on me getting writing again. Finally, I wrote to Bob Heinlein. I told him my troubles; that I couldn't write-perhaps it was that I had no ideas in my head that would strike a story. By return airmail-I don't know how he did it-I got back 26 story ideas. Some of them ran for a page and a half; one or two of them were a line or two. I mean, there were story ideas that some writers would give their left ear for. Some of them were merely suggestions; just little hints, things that will spark a writer like, 'Ghost of a little cat patting around eternity looking for a familiar lap to sit in.'And now Letters of Note has reproduced the entire Heinlein letter in question, complete with all 26 ideas and amusing banter ("To have the incomparable and always scintillating Sturgeon ask for ideas is like having the Pacific Ocean ask one to pee in it.") Also, funny how they refer to each other as Bob and Ted. Heh. Anyway, here's some of my favorite story ideas:
a society where there are no criminal offences, just civil offences, i.e., there is a price on everything, you can look it up in the catalog and pay the price. You want to shoot your neighbor? Go ahead and shoot the bastard. He has a definite economic rating; deposit the money with the local clearing house within 24 hrs.; they will pay the widow. Morality would consist in not trying to get away with anything without paying for it. Good manners would consist in so behaving that no one would be willing to pay your listed price to kill you.Heinlein notes that this is more John Campbell-ish than Sturgeon-ish, but this idea is actually quite Heinleinian. The letter was written in 1955, but you can see a lot of these sorta proto-libertarian ideas, even this early in his life. Another idea:
The bloke sells dreams, in pills. Euphoria, along with your fantasy, is guaranteed. The pills are not toxic, nor are they harmful the way narcotics are, but they are habit-forming as the euphoria dreams are much better than reality. Can the Pure Foods & Drugs people act?That one is pure Phillip K. Dick (Heinlein and Sturgeon would probably call him Phil). More ideas:
We know very little about multiple personality, despite the many case records. Suppose a hypnoanalyst makes a deep investigation into a schizoid...and comes up with with the fact that it is a separate and non-crazy personality in the body, distinct from the nominal one, and that this new personality is a refugee from (say) 2100 A.D., when conditions are so intolerable that escape into another body and another time (even this period) is to be preferred, even at the expense of living more or less helplessly in another man's body.Reading a letter like this, while appreciating the generosity, I can't help but think that it's not really the ideas that matter. These are all fantastic ideas and Heinlein is brilliant here, but we all have great ideas. Ideas are important, but perhaps not as important as we like to believe. You still have to deliver on that idea, which is harder than it looks and that's also where the likes of Heinlein and Sturgeon made a name for themselves. Conversely, there are folks who manage to take dumb ideas and make them into something profound. It's all in that process that the magic lies. Ideas are easy. Heck, I have my own SFnal idea about multiple personality syndrome. But do I have the stones to do anything about it? Well, it is NaNoWriMo... Only 2 days left, but who knows?
Posted by Mark on November 28, 2012 at 10:09 PM .: link :.
Sunday, November 11, 2012
Book Clubbing It
I've fallen behind on book reviewing, partially because I've been doing other stuff but also because I've been reading at a pretty fast pace this year. According to Goodreads, I'm clocking in at 43 books so far this year, which might be my highest ever total in terms of quantity (though it should be noted that at least a couple are very short, novellas and the like, and even most full novels are in the 300-400 page range). So I'm going to start catching up on reviews in the next few weeks, starting with a trio of books I read for a book club at work. Book clubs represent a funny dynamic, as people tend to flex in and out of the club depending on the chosen book, and it's near impossible to choose a book that everyone will want to read. That being said, I've hit up most of the selected books, and even mentioned a couple of them in previous roundups. Here's some of the more recent picks:
Posted by Mark on November 11, 2012 at 11:35 AM .: link :.
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
The Six Weeks of Halloween horror marathon continues with this BBC series written by Steven Moffat, who would go on to produce the most excellent Sherlock series as well as take on the show running responsibilities for the most recent seasons of Doctor Who. Like Sherlock, Jekyll is a modern-day retelling of a famous Victorian-era story, in this case Robert Louis Stevenson's famous novel, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
As with a lot of other British shows, this one is a simple, 6 episode season that has had no real follow-ups (though I suppose Moffat left things open enough in the end to continue the story if needed). Once again, this is a bit of a modernization of the story, so Moffat is able to play with the conventions established in Stevenson's original novel, even to the point of self-awareness by referencing Stevenson's novel.
The show starts a little on the slow side as it establishes the setting and situation our main protagonist is in. Many mysteries and conspiracies are cycled through, and our main character has quite the interesting arc, making you wonder who is the real villain of the story. For the most part, this plays out in a grand tradition of fun, as you learn more and more about Jekyll and Hyde, their origins, and how they impact those around them. I don't want to give much away, but there are plenty of red herrings and mysteries that are eventually resolved in a somewhat satisfactory manner.
The production is generally well orchestrated, with solid visuals and music, if perhaps not quite as polished as a usual TV production would be. It shares a lot in common with Sherlock, though it clearly retains an identity of its own.
As horror, it's not really gory or scary, per say, but it certainly touches on such sub-genres and establishes a tension all its own. I found the beginning to be a bit on the slow side, but it became more involving as things went on, and there were certainly of twists and turns ans the series progressed, each episode ending on a minor cliffhanger, but proceeding anyway. I wouldn't call this a masterpiece or anything, but I had a fun enough time giving it a gander during the Six Weeks of Halloween...
Posted by Mark on October 24, 2012 at 09:24 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
6WH: Halloween Season's Readings
Every year, the Six Weeks of Halloween marathon creeps up on me, and I completely forget to line up some good horror books to read. Well not this year! I've already detailed my first season's reading a couple weeks ago, the near-comprehensive Slasher Movie Book, and in this post, I'll chronicle some other recent readings along those lines, as well as some genuine horror fiction. Let's get this party started:
Posted by Mark on October 17, 2012 at 09:59 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, September 26, 2012
6WH: The Slasher Movie Book
I like slasher movies. There, I said it. Of course, longtime readers of the site (all 5 of you!) already knew that, as slashers tend to comprise an inordinate proportion of movies watched during the Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon I do every year. As sub-genres go, it's not particularly well respected, but again, I like them. I've written about this before, so I'll just say that I find them comforting, like curling up under the sheets on a cold autumn night. Oh sure, they're all working from a relatively limited and predictable formula, but sometimes that works and I'm a big fan of folks who are able to find new and interesting ways to think inside the box.
Despite all the slasher movies I've seen, I'm far from an expert. Enter The Slasher Movie Book. I didn't realize this, but the book was written by J.A. Kerswell, who runs Hysteria Lives! website as well as the Hysteria Continues podcast I mentioned recently.
Having read the book, I think it's safe to say that Kerswell is indeed an expert, and not just on slasher movies. Indeed, the first several chapters of the book cover broad swaths of horror movie history. He's mostly focusing on proto-slashers, but it's clear that Kerswell has broad expertise in the rest of the genre as well. As most horror movie histories begin, this one starts with the Grand Guignol (a theater in Paris that specialized in short plays featuring graphically portrayed acts of torture, murder, and general mayhem), but quickly transitions into silent horror films (which have guided my recent viewings).
From there Kerswell spends a chapter on German "Krimi" (translates roughly to "Crime" or "Mystery Thriller") films, a sub-sub-genre originating in the 1950s that I'd never even heard of before (as such, I will be devoting this coming weekend to some Krimi films I was able to wrangle from Netflix, tune in Sunday to see the results!), then moves on to the Italian Giallo movement (which is a sub-genre I've enjoyed greatly) and other similar proto-slashers from the 60s and 70s.
But the bulk of the book focuses on the Golden Age of the Slasher film, those hallowed years between 1978 and 1984 when slashers were formally codified and replicated ad nauseam. Starting with Halloween and basically ending with A Nightmare on Elm Street, there were seemingly hundreds of slashers made and released in that era. And Kerswell's seemingly seen every last one of them. I mean, I know I said I'm not an expert, but this dude outstripped my knowledge on just about every page. The book is nearly comprehensive, especially in the Golden Age portions. Unfortunately, that breadth of film knowledge comes at the expense of depth. Most films warrant little more than a sentence or two. The classics of the sub-genre obviously get more attention, though even these portions are not exhaustive. But really, how could they be? There are probably a thousand movies mentioned in the book; going into meticulous detail on every single one would be tedious and boring.
Instead, Kurswell does a pretty deft job and summarizing the ebbs and flows of the genre, from the origins of various conventions in early films to the progression of said conventions through the Golden Age. He traces the genre's roots as they move from gritty realism to a reliance on the supernatural to the self-reflexive parodies that kept it alive. He's identified the trends and movements within the genre while cataloging examples to demonstrate. This is a book I assumed would bog down in repetition or simple regurgitation, like that part in the Bible where Jeremiah begat Jededia, Jededia begat Jebediah and so on, for like 10 pages. But this never really reached that kind of boring territory for me. Of course, I'm kinda obsessive about this stuff, so this book fed me a steady stream of new and unknown movies, all contextualized with stuff that I was already familiar with. It worked well.
The book rounds things out with a look at International slashing, the dark days of slashers, "Video Hell", the reinvigoration of the sub-genre at the hands of Scream, and a survey of latter day horror.
I found out about the book from Brian Collins, the guy who runs the estimable Horror Movie A Day website, and I think his review is pretty spot on, and he's qualified to make statements like this too:
...there's enough evidence throughout the book to suggest that I won't always see eye to eye with him, as he refers to New Year's Evil as "dull" (no movie with a killer name-dropping Erik Estrada can be considered as such, in my opinion) and considers the (IMO) rather bland House On Sorority Row to be a top-tier slasher on the same level as My Bloody Valentine. But I have to remember that everyone has their own favorites; the book's introduction explains that Halloween II was his first slasher and thus he has a soft spot for it, though he's thankfully honest about its shortcomings in the text itself. And he's on the right (meaning: MY) side for some other underrated flicks, such as the 2005 House of Wax, and he also (correctly) refers to Cold Prey II as one of the best post-Scream slashers, a bit of a surprise given his affection for Halloween II, which it was clearly aping.Brian is dead on (read: he agrees with me) about New Years Evil and House On Sorority Row, and some of his omissions are good calls to... One omission I would mention is Alice Sweet Alice - Kurswell does mention it in passing under it's original title (Communion), but I would have expected more info on what I thought was one of the clear proto-slashers (I mean, not even a picture of that creepy mask? Come on!) You can't please everyone, I guess. As mentioned above, Kurswell needed to walk a fine line here. Too much info and the book gets cumbersome and boring, too little information and doofuses like me whine about it on the internets. Again, this book is about as good as it gets when it comes to breadth of information.
It's also a very pretty book. Paperback, but all in color, with oodles of gorgeous poster art and stills. I'm not one of them poster art curators that seek out foreign lobby cards and obscure movie art, but I can appreciate that sort of thing when I see it, and if that's your bag, you'll love this. Tons of goofy stuff, along with genuinely effective imagery.
It's a fun book for fans of the sub-genre. Kurswell seems genuinely enthusiastic about the subject and treats it with a respect that few do. As a result, I've come away with dozens of movies I want to track down (if not, uh, hundreds). But don't worry, I'm only planning on spending one week on out-and-out slashers (probably next week).
Posted by Mark on September 26, 2012 at 10:18 PM .: link :.
Sunday, September 09, 2012
Revisiting The X-Files
I'm not a big TV person, but as it turns out, this is less a result of quality than it is of convenience. I think it's the broadcast model that really grinds my gears, but in this age of DVRs and Streaming services, I find myself gravitating towards a lot of television shows that are fully available. This includes a lot of discoveries, but I also value the ability to go back and revisit a show I once loved. As you might guess, I've been watching a lot of The X-Files lately (the whole series is available and easy-to-mainline on Netflix Instant).
Clocking in a 9 seasons and 200+ episodes, it's not a series that lends itself to a single blog post, but it's still worth talking about. There were, of course, two main threads in the series: a continuity of alien/government conspiracy plot-based episodes (though not the first series that attempted such long-term storytelling - Twin Peaks and Wiseguy come to mind - it was still quite ahead of the curve in this respect), and a series of one-off creature of the week type episodes. The continuity episodes established an elaborate mythology that quickly became too dense and nonsensical to me. I'm not sure if that's just because I missed the occasional episode (and thus had no idea what was going on), or if it was because the overarching conspiracy just made no sense, but the general consensus is that the overall storyline went on a little too long, was drawn out over too many seasons, and just got overly complicated and downright silly in the process.
I was always more interested in the one-off standalone episodes though, and they're the ones I keep returning to... Some are memorable favorites, some are new discoveries, things I'd never seen before. One thing that strikes me now is that the series really did consist of an eclectic mixture of elements that worked surprisingly well. There are stoic episodes consisting of deadly serious tragic figures, or lighthearted comedic takes on normally staid subjects. There were a lot of horror or science fiction tropes thrown out there, but also more realistic takes that only feinted towards the paranormal (in particular, there were some serial killer episodes that had little to no supernatural elements). The series was one of the few that could scare you like a good horror movie, instill suspense like a Hitchcockian thriller, impart that expansive sense of wonder that's the hallmark of great science fiction, or just plain make you laugh with expertly crafted comedic episodes.
I haven't really revisited any of the mythology episodes, but the standalone stuff has held up remarkably well. Monsters, aliens, psychics, freaks, serial killers, urban legends, claustrophobia, disease, the series took on quite a broad set of topics. In addition to the subject matter, the series is notable for its production values. In particular, I think the series had great cinematography. Sure, it sometimes gets a little too dark and the special effects are certainly showing their age, but for a TV show made in the 1990s, it's remarkable. Most television of that era had a sorta "flat" feel to it, but the X-Files always seemed to have qualities more closely related to film. That's not particularly rare in contemporary television (especially with the rise of pay cable network television like HBO), but back in the day, watching television that had filmic qualities was quite an eye opener, and as the series progressed, they managed to push boundaries and play with conventions more than most shows of the era. Take, for example, the episode Triangle, which consisted of four continuous shots (there were actually a few more than that, but clever editing made each segment seem continuous, with only commercials breaking up the action).
I had originally planned to list out my favorite episodes that were also somewhat obscure - the ones you don't hear much about - but perhaps it would be good to quickly revisit the series' regularly accepted best episodes (and save the obscure ones for their own post). Unlike a lot of series, I find that my favorite episodes are pretty well represented among the typical best-of lists out there, so here they are:
The X-Files has a clear legacy, but few shows that followed have really captured what made this show great. The broader legacy includes all of the shows writers and directors, who've gone on to write and direct shows like Lost and Breaking Bad. There have been a few recent heirs to the series, though none has really approached the versatility or depth of the X-Files. Still, shows like Warehouse 13 (a sorta mashup of X-Files and that wacky Friday the 13th series) and Fringe do their best, and even succeed in some limited degrees. At this point, I'm guessing there won't be another series like The X-Files, and maybe that's ok.
Posted by Mark on September 09, 2012 at 06:53 PM .: link :.
Sunday, September 02, 2012
Book Queue, 2012 Update
Back in January, I posted a list of eleven books I wanted to read in 2012. In March, I added another 5 to the list. That's sixteen books listed, and I've read eleven of those. In fairness, of the remaining five, one has not come out yet, and I'm not going to read another of them until its sequel comes out. Also, I have read a lot more than has been listed, 34 books so far in 2012 (though a couple of those are short stories or novellas). So I'm making good progress, but I think it's time to load up again.
The remaining books from previous queues...
In no particular order:
Update: Just added Among Others to the list.
Posted by Mark on September 02, 2012 at 08:30 PM .: link :.
Sunday, August 12, 2012
I watch a lot of movies and thus it follows that I also consume a fair amount of film criticism, mostly through the internets (reviews, forums, podcasts, etc...) One thing I've noticed recently in a few high-profile movies is that many reviews resort to long lists of nitpicking. I'm certainly not immune to this tendency - I tried to minimize my nitpicks in my Prometheus review, but if I were so inclined, I could probably generate a few thousand words picking the nits out of that movie. I really disliked that movie, but were the nitpicks the cause? Another movie I could probably nitpick to death is The Dark Knight Rises... and yet, I really enjoyed that movie. We could quibble about the quantity and magnitude of the nitpicks in both films, but a recent discussion with a friend on both movies made me start wondering about nitpicks again. It's something I've seen before, though I don't think I've ever really written about it in detail.
The origin of the term comes from the process of removing the eggs of lice (aka nits) from the host's hair. Because the nits attach themselves to individual strands of hair, the process of removing them is tedious and slow. You could shave all the hair off and later, chemical methods of treating lice infestations became available. But the term nitpicking has lived on as a way describing the practice of meticulously examining a subject in search of subtle errors in detail. In the context of this post, we're talking about movies, but this gets applied to lots of other things.
When it comes to movies and TV series, nitpicks can go either way. Some will claim that the existence of nitpicks are evidence that the show or movie is sloppy and poorly made. Others will claim that the nitpickers are missing the forest for the trees. Nitpickers just don't "get it" and are taking the fun out of everything. In fairness, there's probably an element of truth to both sides of that argument, but I think they're both missing the point of nitpicks, which is this: Nitpicks are almost always emblematic of a deeper problem with the story or characters. Oh sure, there are some people who can't turn their brains off and nitpick because they're just analytical by nature (one definition of engineer's disease), but even in those cases, I think there's something to be said for a deeper dislike than the nitpicks would seem to indicate.
Nitpicks are the symptoms, not the disease. I didn't dislike Prometheus because, for example, their spaceship was in a constant state of thrust at the beginning of the movie or because there was no explanation for how the ship maintained gravity in space. But both of those things were immediately obvious to me, which tells me that I wasn't really immersed in the story that was being told. As the movie unfolds, a number of breathtakingly stupid plot developments were continually taking me out of the story. Perhaps if the movie wasn't so stupid, I may have overlooked those initial observations, but as the nitpicks mounted, it became harder and harder to overlook them. I don't go into a movie hoping that it will suck. There's a certain amount of goodwill that a movie has to wear away at in order to ruin immersion, and for whatever reason the quantity and magnitude of nitpicks with Prometheus wore out that goodwill pretty quickly. The Dark Knight Rises, on the other hand, didn't bother me nearly as much. In fact, as I mentioned in my review, most of the nitpicks I have with that movie came to light after the fact. It's what Hitchcock calls a "refrigerator" movie: something that makes sense while you're watching it, but falls apart under critical examination (while standing in front of the refrigerator later in the night). That being said, for lots of people, that wasn't enough. And that's perfectly understandable.
In general, it seems that people are perhaps less objective than they'd like to think. One of the great things about art is that the pieces that move us usually aren't doing so solely on an intellectual level... and when it comes to emotion, words sometimes fail us. Take, for example, a comedy. The great thing about laughter is that you don't have to think about it, it just happens. Different people have different tastes, of course, and that's where subjectivity comes in. But for whatever reason, we don't like to admit that, so we try to rationalize our feelings about a given movie. And if we don't like that movie, such rationalizations may manifest in the form of nitpicks. None of this is absolute, of course. Most art works on both intellectual and emotional levels, and as you gain experience with a given medium or genre (or whatever), you will start to pick out patterns and tropes. One of the interesting things about this is that what gets labeled a "nitpick" can vary widely in scope. Nitpicks can range from trivial mistakes to serious continuity errors, but they all get lumped under the same category. As such, I think it can be difficult to discern what's a nitpick and what's the root cause of said nitpick.
A few years ago, I was discussing John Scalzi's book Old Man's War in an online forum. I (and a number of other forum members) enjoyed the book greatly, but one person didn't. When asked why, she responded that it was disappointing that, during one scene earlier in the book, a doctor spent time explaining how some machines worked to his patient. This is a nitpick if I've ever seen one. What she said was true - it was somewhat unrealistic that these two characters would stop what they're doing to have a discussion about how certain technologies operated. But I was wrapped up in the story by that point, so I barely even noticed it. Even after it was pointed out, it didn't ruin the book for me. She was not invested in the story though, so that scene was jarring to her. After further discussion, it turns out that this was a specific manifestation of a larger issue she had with the book, which was that it lazily introduced concepts through awkward exposition or dialogue, and never followed through on any of it. I don't particularly agree with her on that, but I can see where she's coming from.
I think the lesson here is that when people are nitpicking a movie to death, it's not necessarily the specific nitpicks that are so bothersome. Perhaps, in some cases, it's the combined weight of all the nitpicks that causes an issue, but I suspect that even in those cases, the nitpicks are merely the most obvious examples of a deeper problem. I think both critics and defenders would do well to recognize this sort of thing. It's fun to list out nitpicks or examples of something you don't like about a work of art, but that's not really what criticism is about. I don't mean to say that you can't or shouldn't do this sort of thing, just that it would be useful at some point to look back at that list and wonder what it was about the book or movie or whatever that inspired you to meticulously chronicle minor errors or whatever. This is probably easier said than done. I can't say as though I succeed at this all the time, but then, I'm just some dude wanking on the internets. Ultimately, all of this is somewhat superfluous, but it's something worth considering the next time you find yourself cataloging trivial errors in detail.
Posted by Mark on August 12, 2012 at 06:38 PM .: link :.
Sunday, July 29, 2012
Recent Trashy Reading Roundup
It's not all high minded nerdery here at Kaedrin. Sure, we'll take on classics on occasion, but sometimes you want to read a fictional account of "Bin Laden's assassination - by a vampire who stuffed a grenade in his mouth and then threw him over a cliff so he exploded in midair." Yeah, it's trashy, but it's fun. I've recently started a couple of series that promise to keep me busy, so long as I don't lose interest...
Posted by Mark on July 29, 2012 at 07:40 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, July 25, 2012
On The Inevitable Batman Reboot
This list of five things he wants in the Batman reboot (assuming that the next film in the franchise will be some form of reboot) has some interesting notions. I'll have more to say about some of his other demands, but if I were ever tapped to make a Batman movie (or comic, for that matter), this one would be my keystone:
Make Batman a detective.He loses me with the Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes reference (I guess they're fine for what they are, but are they really something to emulate?), but otherwise, this is spot on. Batman's first appearance was in Detective Comics, after all, and he's supposed to be the world's greatest crime solver. Why not give him an actual mystery to solve? As the Devin Faraci (the author of the piece) notes, this aspect of Batman is historically underplayed, but everyone loves a good sleuthing, so long as the mystery is actually clever and not just obscure (i.e. don't hire Lindelof and Abrams, though I suspect people would lobby for that duo). To my mind, this sort of story would be an ideal fit for The Riddler as villain, but I'm getting ahead of myself. More on villains later.
As for Faraci's other suggestions, I don't feel strongly about most of them, but let's take a look anyway. Maybe I can muster up some invective or praise:
Posted by Mark on July 25, 2012 at 09:59 PM .: link :.
Sunday, July 15, 2012
What is good?
Ian Sales thinks he knows:
I've lost count of the number of times I've been told "good is subjective" or "best is subjective". Every time I hear it, it makes me howl with rage. Because it is wrong.The irony here is that I've lost count of the number of times I've been told that "good is objective". And yet, no one seems to be able to define what constitutes good. Even Ian, despite his adamant stance, describes what is good in entirely subjective terms.
It is not an exact science, and it is subject to changes in taste and/or re-evaluation in light of changes in attitudes and sensibilities. But there are certain key indicators in fiction which can be used to determine the quality of that piece of fiction.Having established that there are key indicators that can be used to determine quality, Sales proceeds to list... approximately none of them. Instead, he talks about "taste" and "changes in attitudes and sensibilities" (both of which are highly subjective). If it's not an "exact science", how is it objective? Isn't this an implicit admission that subjectivity plays a role? He does mention some criteria for bad writing though:
Perhaps it's easier to describe what is bad - if good is subjective, then by definition bad must be too. Except, strangely, everyone seems to agree that the following do indeed indicate that a piece of fiction is bad: cardboard cutout characters, idiot plotting, clumsy prose, tin-earred dialogue, lack of rigour, graceless info-dumping, unoriginality, bad research...The problem with this is that most of his indicators are subjective. Some of them could contain a nugget of objectivity, notably the "bad research" piece, but others are wholly subjective. What exactly constitutes "tin-eared dialogue"? One person's cardboard cutout character is another person's fully realized and empathetic soul.
Perhaps it's my engineering background taking over, but I have a pretty high standard for objectivity. There are many objective measures of a book, but most of those aren't very useful in determining the book's quality. For instance, I can count the number of letters or words in the book. I can track the usage of punctuation or contractions. Those numbers really won't tell me much, though. I can look at word distribution and vocabulary, but then, there are a lot of classics that don't use flowery language. Simplicity sometimes trumps complexity. I can evaluate the grammar using the standards of our language, but by those measures, James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon would probably be labeled "bad" writers. For that matter, so would Ian, who's recent novella Adrift on the Sea of Rains eschews the basic grammatical convention of using quotations for dialogue. But they're not bad writers, in large part because they stray from the standards. Context is important. So that's not really that useful either.
The point of objectivity is to remove personal biases and feelings from the equation. If you can objectively measure a book, then I should be able to do the same - and our results should be identical. If we count the words in a book, we will get the same answer (assuming we count correctly). Similarly, if we're able to objectively measure a book's quality, you and I should come to the same conclusion. Now, Ian Sales has read more books than me. The guy's a writer, and he knows his craft well, so perhaps the two of us won't see eye to eye on a lot of things. But even getting two equivalently experienced people to agree on everything is a fool's errand. Critical reading is important. Not everyone that subverts grammatical conventions is doing so well or for good reason. Sometimes simplicity can be elegant, sometimes it feels clumsy. Works of art need to be put into the cultural and historical context, and thus a work should stand up to some sort of critical examination. But critical is not equivalent to objective.
Now, Ian does have an interesting point here. If what's "good" is subjective, then how is that a valuable statement?
If good is subjective, then awards are completely pointless. And studying literature, well, that's a complete waste of time too. After all, how can you be an expert in a topic in which one individual's value judgment is worth exactly the same another person's? There'd be no such thing as an expert. All books would have exactly the same artistic value.Carried to its logical extreme, the notion that what's "good" is wholly subjective does complicate matters. I don't think I'd go quite as far as Ian did in the above referenced paragraph, but maybe he's on to something.
So far, I have mentioned a bunch of questions that Ian asked, which I will now try to give an answer to:
We can devise whatever measurements we want, we can come up with statistical sampling models that will take into account sales and votes and prizes and awards and academic praise and journal mentions, whatever. I actually find those to be interesting and fun exercises, but they're just that. They ultimately aren't that important to history. I'd bet that the things from our era that are commonly referenced 200 years from now would seem horribly idiosyncratic and disjointed to us...
Sales concludes with this:
If you want to describe a book in entirely subjective terms, then tell people how much you enjoyed it, how much you liked it. That's your own personal reaction to it. It appealed to you, it entertained you. That's the book directly affecting you. Another person may or may not react the same way, the book might or might not do the same to them.He's not wrong about that. Enjoyment is subjective. But if we divorce the concept of "good" from the concept of "enjoyment", what are we left with? It's certainly a useful distinction to make at times. There are many things I "like" that I don't think are particularly "good" on any technical level. I'm not saying that a book has to be "enjoyable" to be "good", but I don't think they're entirely independent either. There are many ways to measure a book. For the most part, in my opinion, the objective ones aren't very useful or predictive by themselves. You could have an amazingly well written book (from a prose standpoint) put into service of a poorly plotted story, and then what? On the other hand, complete subjectivity isn't exactly useful either. You fall into the trap that Ian lays out: if everything is entirely subjective, then there is no value in any of it. That's why we have all these elaborate systems though. We have markets that lead to sales numbers, we have awards (with large or small juries, working together or sometimes independently), we have academics, we have critics, we have blogs, we have reviews, we have friends whose opinions we trust, we have a lot of things we can consider.
In chaos theory, even simple, orderly systems display chaotic elements. Similarly, even the most chaotic natural systems have some sort of order to them. This is, of course, a drastic simplification. One could argue that the universe is headed towards a state of absolute entropy; the heat death of the universe. Regardless of the merits of this metaphor, I feel like the push and pull of objectivity is similar. Objective assessments of novels that are useful will contain some element of subjectivity. Similarly, most subjective assessments will take into account objective measurements. In the end, we do our best with what we've got. That's my opinion, anyway.
Posted by Mark on July 15, 2012 at 07:05 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, July 04, 2012
55 Reading Questions
As memes go, this one is self-explanatory, but I read a lot so it's fun too:
1) Favourite childhood book?
I suppose this depends on where you draw the line of childhood, but the book that comes to mind is Dean Koontz's Lightning. It's the book that I credit with getting me to read for pleasure. I was 13 at the time, and reading was generally something I was forced to do for school, not something I did for fun. But my brother gave me this book once when I was bored and I couldn't put it down. I'd never had an experience like that before, and from that point on, I read as much as I could. If teen years don't count as childhood, another thing that came to mind is Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books, but it's been a solid 20-25 years since I've even seen those things, and I remember very little about them except a character named Taran and the black riders that seem so similar to the Nazgul from LotR...
2) What are you reading right now?
I just finished Fahrenheit 451, part of an effort to familiarize myself with Bradbury's work (this originated back during the NPR SF/F list days when I acknowledged my shame of not having read any Bradbury - it's just a not-so-happy coincidence that I read this book in the wake of Bradbury's passing). I just started reading a collection of short stories by Sharma Shields called Favorite Monster, which, despite having only read a few of the stories, might be the weirdest thing I've read all year.
3) What books do you have on request at the library?
Sadly, I haven't been to the library in many years. I'm not even sure where the closest library is...
4) Bad book habit?
I'm not really sure I have any, save perhaps not reading enough...
5) What do you currently have checked out at the library?
Again, no library usage here.
6) Do you have an e-reader?
Yes, a Kindle Touch that I've used more than expected. In fact, Fahrenheit 451 was the first paper book I've read in several months... Though it was sorta appropriate given the subject matter, it was really just because the physical book was cheaper than the Kindle version (I get that instituting ebooks at a big publishing house is non-trivial, but stuff like this is so non-intuitive and frustrating).
7) Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?
For the most part, I'm reading one book at a time. I primarily read fiction, but will often have a non-fiction book started as well, and will switch back and forth as my mood dictates or given certain situations (this might be too much information, but I almost always have a book in the bathroom, often a book about homebrewing or beer). In general, though, I will get into one of the two books and burn through to the end.
8) Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?
I started this blog about 12 years ago at this point, and my reading habits have changed several times in that interval. I will say that I do tend to blog more about what I read these days, that being a good way of arranging my interests in parallel.
9) Least favourite book you read this year (so far)?
A two-way tie between Foreigner, by C. J. Cherryh (my thoughts) and Fool Moon, by Jim Butcher. In both cases, I will probably revisit other works by the author, but I don't have anything planned in the short term...
10) Favourite book you’ve read this year?
Another two-way tie (but the books are deeply intertwined and part of the same series) between Memory and A Civil Campaign, both by Lois McMaster Bujold. Check out my thoughts on both, along with some other books in the series.
11) How often do you read out of your comfort zone?
Occasionally. A lot of non-fiction is generally outside my comfort zone, and I've been vying away from my normal comfort zone more this year than last year...
12) What is your reading comfort zone?
Science fiction and pop-science non-fiction. Maybe horror and fantasy would also fit, though I don't read a lot of either...
13) Can you read on the bus?
I'm sure I can, but buses around here are generally to be avoided.
14) Favourite place to read?
If it's nice outside, I like to sit on my deck and read, but the grand majority of my reading is done in my living room, on my couch.
15) What is your policy on book lending?
I'm generally pretty open to lending, though it doesn't seem to come up much.
16) Do you ever dog-ear books?
I'm sure this is blasphemy to some folks, but yes, I'm a compulsive dog-earer, especially for non-fiction. However, I'm finding that one of the big advantages of an ereader is the ability to easily highlight passages (and even save some notes about why I'm highlighting the passage).
17) Do you ever write in the margins of your books?
Very rarely did I do this with physical books, though perhaps I did for a few things in college, but I do so more often now that I read ebooks.
18) Not even with text books?
I don't have much occasion to read text books these days, but like I said, when I was in college, I probably did a little of this (but not a ton).
19) What is your favourite language to read in?
20) What makes you love a book?
Interesting ideas, engaging characters, and good storytelling.
21) What will inspire you to recommend a book?
I find recommendations difficult. I rarely give unqualified recommendations, but if I really love a book, I will recommend it. If someone's asking for recommendations, I do my best to tailor my recommendations to their needs and desires, rather than just what I like...
22) Favourite genre?
23) Genre you rarely read (but wish you did)?
I wish I had a better handle on crime novels. I love crime movies, but have rarely read crime books. It's something I want to become better acquainted with. I'm reasonably familiar with horror literature, but I have not read much in the past few years, nor have I gone as deep as I have with something like SF.
24) Favourite biography?
I don't read many, but Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War was fantastic and would probably be my favorite.
25) Have you ever read a self-help book?
I can't say as though I have, unless you count stuff like Homebrewing books or pop-science books.
26) Favourite cookbook?
I have a couple cookbooks, but they're fairly unremarkable, to the point where naming them my favorite seems like a waste. If homebrewing counts, then How to Brew: Everything You Need To Know To Brew Beer Right The First Time by John J. Palmer is a great introductory text.
27) Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?
Not sure if I really get inspired as this question intends, but pop-science non-fiction always seems to get me fired up. So far this year, I'd say that Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson was probably the one that hit me the best...
28) Favorite reading snack?
Pretzels, but for the most part I'm not eating whist reading. I usually drink tea or water whilst reading though. On rare occasions, I'll crack a sipping beer, like a barleywine or a bourbon-barrel aged stout or something (a good pairing in winter).
29) Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.
I don't really see much in the way of hype when it comes to books. Perhaps there are some classics that don't quite live up to their reputation though. A lot of golden-age SF is written in a bit of a flat style, but often the ideas are still well represented, so I'm having trouble thinking of specific examples...
30) How often do you agree with critics about a book?
I can't say as though I read a lot of critics, at least not in the way that I read a lot of film criticism. I suppose I tend to agree with most of what I read, or I can at least understand where someone's coming from when their opinions don't match mine.
31) How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?
I don't relish giving bad/negative reviews in the way that some people in the internets do, but if I didn't like a book, I'm going to say so.
32) If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you choose?
An interesting question. The first thing that came to mind was Japanese, but I suppose Russian would be an interesting one too.
33) Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?
Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon.
34) Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?
An interesting question. There are perhaps a few, but the one that springs immediately to mind is James Joyce's Ulysses.
35) Favourite poet?
Not much of a poetry guy, but who doesn't like Robert Frost? Or heck, Shakespeare...
36) How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?
Again, no real library usage here.
37) How often have you returned books to the library unread?
Again, no real library usage here.
38) Favourite fictional character?
This was a tougher question than I thought, but the obvious answer for the past couple years is Miles Vorkosigan from Lois McMaster Bujold's very long series of books mostly detailing his life and times. After thinking for a moment, I also thought of the Waterhouse and Shaftoe clans from Cryptonomicon, but that's sorta cheating, as there are multiple characters and I love them all...
39) Favourite fictional villain?
And this is even harder than the last question. The first thing that came to mind was Sauron, but that's a boring answer. Unfortunately, not that many other options are forthcoming. How about Grand Admiral Thrawn from Timothy Zahn's Star Wars books? I suppose it's a bit hokey to reference Star Wars books, but Thrawn was a genuinely well thought out villain and a worthy successor to Vader and the Emperor...
40) Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation?
Something that is breezy and easy to read in busy places with lots of distractions like beaches or airports. I once tried to read Umberto Eco on a trip and it was... not quite as rewarding as it would have been if I read it at home in a more controlled environment. On the other hand, Bujold's books were great companions last year, and I'm sure John Scalzi's books would fit the bill as well...
41) The longest I’ve gone without reading.
I really don't know how to measure this one. I presume we're talking about books here and not newspapers, magazines, websites, etc... but even then, I'm not really sure how to go about quantifying this. There are certainly periods in my life where I didn't read nearly as much as I do now, but I don't really know the longest period of time I've gone between reading books. Let's say a couple weeks?
42) Name a book that you could/would not finish.
It's pretty rare that I don't finish a book, but I never did finish David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. It's something I may go back to, but I got pretty well fed up with the book while reading it. I got almost halfway through it though, which is actually a lot of time and effort to throw away, but I was getting annoyed by the lack of any real point to what I was reading. Oh sure, lots of themes and interesting stuff, but it felt like reading a SNL show filled with disconnected skits, and even when they connected, it wasn't quite enough to make up for all the stuff about drugs and stuff that I didn't particularly care about.
43) What distracts you easily when you’re reading?
I was going to say the internet, but really that's my fault, so the real answer to this question is me. I let myself get distracted sometimes, but that's usually indicative of the fact that I'm not enjoying what I'm reading.
44) Favourite film adaptation of a novel?
That's a tough one, as there aren't a lot of situations in which I've both read the novel and seen the movie. The Lord of the Rings movies are certainly a candidate, as they managed something I wasn't sure was possible... Fight Club is a pretty great adaptation. I do love The Shining, despite the fact that it is so very different than the book. I think that's what really makes it work though, as I will often get bored by the book or movie if I've already read/seen the other version of the story.
45) Most disappointing film adaptation?
Another difficult one as there are so many bad adaptations. How the Grinch Stole Christmas comes to mind. David Lunch's Dune is more of an interesting failure than a disappointing one. I definitely want to call out Starship Troopers, as it's one of the least faithful adaptations ever put to film. Regardless of what you may think of Heinlein's right-wing novel (it's not one of my favorites), the film completely changes the direction while keeping the basic structure in place. It's a movie that has inexplicably enjoyed a sorta cult following since it bombed at the box office, and I will admit there is something compelling about the film, but in a bad way. Like watching a trainwreck.
46) The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?
I can't say as though I've really kept track. I don't tend to buy a lot of books at once though, so I'm guessing it's pretty low. Then again, there's definitely been a holiday season or two when I've bought a lot of books as presents, probably going as high as $100...
47) How often do you skim a book before reading it?
It's pretty rare, though I do like to see how much reading is left before the end of the chapter/section I'm currently reading. This is one thing that does annoy about ereaders, as it's very difficult to do that sort of thing.
48) What would cause you to stop reading a book halfway through?
So the inverse of what I love is a good place to start: Dumb ideas, bad characters that I can't engage with, bad storytelling or plotting. As I mentioned before, it's pretty rare that I stop reading a book though. I can only think of a couple books I've not finished in the past few years.
49) Do you like to keep your books organized?
I have a loose system, but nothing particularly special. I know there are lots of folks who obsess over their bookshelves, but it's not something I've ever really worried about.
50) Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?
I generally keep books, but I wouldn't have a problem parting with a lot of them. I'm a bit of a packrat though, so I tend to keep stuff.
51) Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?
Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter has been on my shelf for a while now. I'm sure it's something I'd enjoy, but it's a really long book - 1000+ pages of very dense, complex prose - and I feel like it would kill the momentum I've built up this year in reading...
52) Name a book that made you angry.
I tend to avoid books I think will make me angry, but some non-fiction will make me angry, especially politics or detailing tragic situations in the real world, etc...
53) A book you didn’t expect to like but did?
Another tough question, as I don't read a lot of books I don't expect to like. I generally go into a book hoping to like it... That being said, I think I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Ursula K. Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness
54) A book that you expected to like but didn’t?
The aforementioned Foreigner, by C. J. Cherryh was the most recent and egregious example of this...
55) Favourite guilt-free, pleasure reading?
I can't say as though I've ever really felt guilty of reading something, though perhaps my recent reading of a couple of Christopher Farnsworth's trashy Vampire spy novels kinda fit.
Well, there you have it. It was a long one, but fun. Feel free to berate me for my answers in the comments and have a happy Independence Day!
Posted by Mark on July 04, 2012 at 07:58 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article called How David Beats Goliath, and the internets rose up in nerdy fury. Like a lot of Gladwell's work, the article is filled with anecdotes (whatever you may think of Gladwell, he's a master of anecdotes), most of which surround the notion of a full-court press in basketball. I should note at this point that I absolutely loath the sport of basketball, so I don't really know enough about the mechanics of the game to comment on the merits of this strategy. That being said, the general complaint about the article is that Gladwell chose two examples that aren't really representative of the full-court press. The primary example seems to be a 12 year old girls basketball team, coached by an immigrant unfamiliar with the game:
Ranadive was puzzled by the way Americans played basketball. He is from Mumbai. He grew up with cricket and soccer. He would never forget the first time he saw a basketball game. He thought it was mindless. Team A would score and then immediately retreat to its own end of the court. Team B would inbound the ball and dribble it into Team A's end, where Team A was patiently waiting. Then the process would reverse itself. A basketball court was ninety-four feet long. But most of the time a team defended only about twenty-four feet of that, conceding the other seventy feet. Occasionally, teams would play a full-court press—that is, they would contest their opponent's attempt to advance the ball up the court. But they would do it for only a few minutes at a time. It was as if there were a kind of conspiracy in the basketball world about the way the game ought to be played, and Ranadive thought that that conspiracy had the effect of widening the gap between good teams and weak teams. Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent's end. Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good?The strategy apparently worked well, to the point where they made it to the national championship tournament:
The opposing coaches began to get angry. There was a sense that Redwood City wasn't playing fair - that it wasn't right to use the full-court press against twelve-year-old girls, who were just beginning to grasp the rudiments of the game. The point of basketball, the dissenting chorus said, was to learn basketball skills. Of course, you could as easily argue that in playing the press a twelve-year-old girl learned something much more valuable - that effort can trump ability and that conventions are made to be challenged.Most of the criticism of this missed the forest for the trees. A lot of people nitpicked some specifics, or argued as if Gladwell was advocating for all teams playing a press (when he was really just illustrating a broader point that underdogs don't always need to play by the stronger teams' conventions). One of the most common complaints was that "the press isn't always an advantage" which I'm sure is true, but again, it kinda misses the point that Gladwell was trying to make. Tellingly, most folks didn't argue about Gladwell's wargame anecdote, though you could probably make similar nitpicky arguments.
Anyway, the reason I'm bringing this up three years after the fact is not to completely validate Gladwell's article or hate on his critics. As I've already mentioned, I don't care a whit about basketball, but I do think Gladwell has a more general point that's worth exploring. Oddly enough, after recently finishing the novel Redishirts, I got an itch to revisit some Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes and rediscovered one of my favorite episodes. Oh sure, it's not one of the celebrated episodes that make top 10 lists or anything, but I like it nonetheless. It's called Peak Performance, and it's got quite a few parallels to Gladwell's article.
The main plot of the episode has to do with a war simulation exercise in which the Enterprise engages in a mock battle with an inferior ship (with a skeleton crew lead by Commander Riker). There's an obvious parallel here between the episode and Gladwell's article (when asked how a hopelessly undermatched ship can compete with the Enterprise, Worf responds "Guile."), but it's the B plot of the episode that is even more relevant (the main plot goes in a bit of a different direction due to some meddling Ferengi).
The B plot concerns the military strategist named Kolrami. He's acting as an observer of the exercise and he's arrogant, smarmy, and condescending. He's also a master at Strategema, one of Star Trek's many fictional (and nonsensical) games. Riker challenges this guy to a match because he's a glutton for punishment (this really is totally consistent with his character) - he just wants to say that he played the master, even if he lost... which, of course, he does. Later, Dr. Pulaski volunteers Data to play a game, with the thought being that the android would easily dispatch Kolrami, thus knocking him down a peg. But even Data loses.
Data is shaken by the loss. He even removes himself from duty. He expected to do better. According to the rules, he "made no mistakes", and yet he still lost. After analyzing his failure and discussing the matter with the captain (who basically tells Data to shut up and get back to work), Data resumes his duty, eventually even challenging Kolrami to a rematch. But this time, Data alters his premise for playing the game. "Working under the assumption that Kolrami was attempting to win, it is reasonable to assume that expected me to play for the same goal." But Data wasn't playing to win. He was playing for a stalemate. Whenever opportunities for advancement appeared, Data held back, attempting to maintain a balance. He estimated that he should be able to keep the game going indefinitely. Frustrated by Data's stalling, Kolrami forfeits in a huff.
There's an interesting parallel here. Many people took Gladwell's article to mean that he thought the press was a strategy that should be employed by all teams, but that's not really the point. The examples he gave were situations in which the press made sense. Similarly, Data's strategy of playing for stalemate was uniquely suited to him. The reason he managed to win was that he is an android without any feelings. He doesn't get frustrated or bored, and his patience is infinite. So while Kolrami may have technically been a better player, he was no match for Data once Data played to his own strengths.
Obviously, quoting fiction does nothing to bolster Gladwell's argument, but I was struck by the parallels. One of the complaints to Gladwell's article that rang at least a little true was that the article's overarching point was "so broad and obvious as to be not worth writing about at all." I don't know that I fully buy that, as a lot of great writing can ultimately be boiled down to something "broad and obvious", but it's a fair point. On the other hand, even if you think that, I do find that there's value in highlighting examples of how it's done, whether it's a 12 year old girls basketball team, or a fictional android playing a nonsensical (but metaphorically apt) game on a TV show. It seems that human beings sometimes need to be reminded that thinking outside the box is an option.
Posted by Mark on June 27, 2012 at 09:34 PM .: link :.
Sunday, May 27, 2012
Weird Book of the Week
After reading the following post, I'm expanding the Weird Movie of the Week franchise to apply to books:
In her book on writing, The Art of Fiction, Ayn Rand said no fiction writer should ever use real people or contemporary events. She said her original draft of The Fountainhead included Hitler, but she later cut him out because she wasn't sure anyone would know who he was in 10 years. While she was obviously wrong, the principle stands, and today we're seeing why.Issues with plausibility aside, I think I'm going to read these books. This is exactly the sort of thing I'd take a chance on because of Kindle, though now that I look at it, the Kindle version is more expensive than the hardcover, which is absurd. Anywho, this series of novels is apparently based on a true story:
....he discovered an odd factoid in American history: a sailor who was convicted of killing and drinking the blood of his crewmates, then inexplicably pardoned by President Andrew Johnson. So Farnsworth provided a reason: The vampire sailor had taken an oath to serve the nation. The ideas for a series of novels were quick to follow.Well, yeah. Of the Bin Laden incident described above, Farnsworth had this to say: "That was my Captain America punching Hitler in the mouth moment." I rather think he one upped the stakes there, and that's saying something.
Incidentally, this marks the second occasion I've linked to the freakin' Boise Weekly, an Idaho "alternative newspaper". I blame one of their staff writers, Josh Gross, who seems to have a knack for this stuff.
I'm still going to file this under Weird Movie of the Week, because really, this needs to be made into a movie.
Update: The audio version of the first book in the series is narrated by Bronson Pinchot. Bronson. Pinchot.
Posted by Mark on May 27, 2012 at 08:35 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
I like podcasts and listen to many different ones, but it seems that the ones that I actually look forward to are few and far between. Here are a few recent additions to the rotation:
Posted by Mark on April 25, 2012 at 10:19 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
I'm gonna be taking a trip to The Cabin in The Woods tonight, so time is sparse, thus some linkys for you:
Posted by Mark on April 18, 2012 at 07:09 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
More Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections on ebooks and Readers
While I have some pet peeves with the Kindle, I've mostly found it to be a good experience. That being said, there are some things I'd love to see in the future. These aren't really complaints, as some of this stuff isn't yet available, but there are a few opportunities afforded by the electronic nature of eBooks that would make the whole process better.
Posted by Mark on April 11, 2012 at 09:22 PM .: link :.
Sunday, April 01, 2012
Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections on ebooks
I had this idea for a series of posts when I was just getting started on the blog where I would rant on and on about this or that subject. I even created a category for it! But then, I almost immediately neglected the category. I'm a generally amiable guy, not frequently disgruntled. Maybe freakish though. Anyway, I thought I'd revisit the concept.
So I got a Kindle for Christmas last year and have been reading as many ebooks as possible. I'm certainly not an expert on the subject, but I have some assorted thoughts, some freakish, some disgruntled, and some just plain gruntled.
Posted by Mark on April 01, 2012 at 10:11 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Because my book queue is not long enough*, it seems some of my favorite SF authors are releasing new novels in 2012. Yay**. Here are the most exciting ones, in order of anticipated publication:
** Not sarcasm!
Posted by Mark on March 28, 2012 at 09:34 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, March 07, 2012
Tasting Notes - Part 5
Yet another edition of Tasting Notes, a series of quick hits on a variety of topics that don't really warrant a full post. So here's what I've been watching/playing/reading/drinking lately:
Posted by Mark on March 07, 2012 at 08:03 PM .: link :.
Sunday, February 12, 2012
The human brain is basically a giant correlation machine. Well, ok, that's a drastic simplification, but I've often written about how correlation and induction play an important role in life. This is a large subject, but today I want to focus on one result of our predilection towards correlation: our tendency to develop complex taxonomies. For books and movies, we've got genres. For beer, we've got style. Retail stores have departments. You name it, chances are that there's a complex taxonomy describing variations (you'll notice that this post tends to consist of examples from my obsessions with movies, beer and technology, but this would all be relevant to a wide variety of subjects).
This tendency invariably leads to nerdy arguments about specific examples and where they fall within the taxonomy. Is Inglourious Basterds Science Fiction? Are comic book movies science fiction? Should we make a distinction between science fiction and science fantasy? What exactly constitutes a West Coast IPA? What do we call Black IPAs? What are the defining characteristics of a Weblog? What are some examples of the Hillbilly Horror genre? Take a trip down TV Tropes lane, and you're guaranteed to find a comprehensive list of genres, sub-genres, and myriad conventions or cliches.
Why go to all this trouble to categorize everything? What is it about the internet that seems to magnify these discussions?
Well, the most obvious reason for such excessive categorization is that it will communicate something about the particular instance being discussed. Categorizing movies into various genres helps us determine what we're in for when we sit down to watch a movie. Style guidelines communicate what kinds of characteristics to expect from a beer. Genres and styles provide a common ground for both creators and critics, and the reduce the pool of possibilities to a more manageable number.
Those are good things1, but they're really only scratching the surface of why we taxonomize. Most people get frustrated by taxonomies. It seems that every genre, every style, is inadequate, especially when their favorite instance is pigeonholed into a particular category. Hence, we get the aforementioned nerdy debates on the nature of science fiction or west coast IPAs. Genres and styles are blurry along the edges, and there's a great deal of overlap. Individual works often fit into many categories. If one were so inclined, they could make each category excessively inclusive or moderately narrow, but worrying about the blurry edges of taxonomy is kinda missing the point. In the parlance of hackers, the blurry edges of taxonomy are a feature, not a bug.
I've been reading Steven Johnson's book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, and he makes a fascinating observation that genres are the stacked platforms of the creative world:
For understandable reasons, we like to talk about artistic innovations in terms of the way that they break the rules, open up new doors in the adjacent possible that lesser minds never even see. But genius requires genres. Flaubert and Joyce needed the genre of the bildungsroman to contort and undermine in Sentimental Education and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Dylan needed the conventions of acoustic folk to electrify the world with Highway 61 Revisited. Genres supply a set of implicit rules that have enough coherence that traditionalists can safely play inside them, and more adventurous artists can confound our expectations by playing with them. Genres are the platforms and paradigms of the creative world. They are almost never willed into existence by a single pioneering work. Instead, they fade into view, through a complicated set of shared signals passed between artists, each contributing different elements to the mix.
I love the description of genres fading into view, perhaps because you could say that genres never really come into full clarity. That may frustrate some, but that inherent blurriness is where taxonomies derive power and it's what allows geniuses to create their most amazing works. And this does not just apply to art. In Brew Like a Monk, Stan Hieronymus relates an anecdote from Michael Jackson (the beer critic, not the pop star):
As Hieronymus later notes, if we didn't make "rules," we wouldn't know when to break them.
That is the power of taxonomy. It gives us a place to start. It gives us the basic rules and techniques. Defining such conventions may seem limiting, but it's actually freeing. You have to understand those conventions before you can break them or combine them properly, which can sometimes result in something inspirational and brilliant. Ironically, this seems to happen with such regularity that I'm sure many "innovations" we see today are repeats of previous revolutions. As Johnson notes, genres and style are part of a stacked platform. They're built on top of even more basic building blocks, notably technology. Technology often recontextualizes existing taxonomies, opening them up to subtly different interpretations. The same innovative idea can be magnified and mutated into something different by technology. It's very rare that something completely new emerges from history. It's more likely something that has existed for a long time, but slightly tweaked to match the times. Taxonomies are platforms. They are not limiting. You build things on top of platforms, and that's why we go to the trouble of categorizing everything we can.
1 - Nerdy fury on the internets is one thing, but for the most part this isn't really controversial stuff. However, once you start placing taxonomies on human beings, things get a little more complicated. If one were so inclined, an interesting discussion on the nature of prejudice as it relates to the human penchant for correlation could yield interesting insights. Unfortunately, this is not a post for that more weighty (and controversial) subject.
Posted by Mark on February 12, 2012 at 09:21 AM .: link :.
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
The Book Queue, 2012 Edition
The last list I posted, back in July 2011, had 15 books on it. I've made some excellent process, clearing out almost all of the "Holdovers" from previous lists, including some books that have been sitting on my shelf for literally years. The one remainder from that list is Godel, Escher, Bach, which I chose not to read due to its length (not sure if I'll tackle it this year either, but it will remain in the queue until I do!) I've actually read several books that weren't even in the queue, but I think it's time to regroup and look ahead to what I'll be reading in 2012. The first few books here are holdovers from the previous list, which I didn't read for various reasons.
Posted by Mark on January 11, 2012 at 06:26 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
The Year in Reading
As of this moment (and depending on how you count omnibus editions), I have read 30 books in 2011. There's a pretty good chance that I'll finish my current book by the end of the year as well. If you'll permit some navel gazing, here are some stats about what I've read this year:
Things have slowed down in the latter part of this year, though I think a large part of that is that I've been focusing on longer novels and non-fiction, which obviously take more time. Indeed, if I manage to tackle Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid next year, I expect that will drag down my numbers a bit. Of course, I could hold off on that and slot in 4 short novels in its place, but I should really read GEB, as it's been on my shelf for quite a while... Looking ahead to next year, I'll definitely be finishing off Bujold's Vorkosigan novels, and I was given a Kindle for Christmas, so I'm sure I'll find plenty of things to read there. Perhaps an updated book queue is in order!
Posted by Mark on December 28, 2011 at 07:26 PM .: link :.
Sunday, November 27, 2011
It's a meme! About books! Here goes:
Posted by Mark on November 27, 2011 at 01:35 PM .: link :.
Sunday, September 18, 2011
NPR's Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books
I've been meaning to comment on this for a while, but haven't gotten around to it until now. A couple months ago, NPR put out the call for fans to nominate the best science-fiction and fantasy books. Out of several thousand nominations, NPR narrowed the list down to a few hundred, then had another voting period, finally ending up with the top 100 books (or series).
Like most lists, especially crowd-sourced lists like this, there are many quibbles to be had, but it's a pretty decent list. Below, I'll bold the ones I've read and add annotations where I can, then follow up with some comments.
I'm not sure what to make of the disparity between male and female authors on the list. Is it that there are less female authors of SF/F? Or is it that there are less female readers voting? I can think of one glaring omission on the list - The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russel is superb, and would certainly be on my list (I'm pretty sure it was on the shortlist, but got culled when NPR cut down to 100). Thanks to my incessant Bujold reading, 10 of the 23 books I've read so far this year have been written by a woman (though again, most of that is Bujold). I could probably improve that to 50/50 by the end of the year, which would be nice.
And that about covers it. How many have you read?
Update: Forgot to bold one of the books I read, so my count at the end was off. Updated!
Posted by Mark on September 18, 2011 at 08:32 PM .: link :.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
SF Book Review, Part 8: Vorkosigan Edition
I've read the first few books in Lois McMaster Bujold's long-running Vorkosigan Saga and reviewed them in the the last couple SF Book reviews. In short, I've really enjoyed them, and now I've read five more books in the series.
At this point, it's hard to talk about the series without giving a little background info to start with. This, by necessity, means some spoilers, which I'll try to keep at a minimum (if you're sold on the series and want to get started, just skip to the last paragraph of this post). Here goes: In Shards of Honor, Cordelia Naismith of Beta Colony meets Aral Vorkosigan of Barrayar, and they get married around the time Aral becomes the Regent of Barrayar (the planet is ruled by a military class called the Vor, which consists of an Emperor and a bunch of Counts. A Regent is appointed when the current Emperor is not yet old enough to take the throne). Barrayar is a largely feudal society, so there's lots of Machiavellian scheming going on, and thus Aral's Regency was not unchallenged. An assassination attempt exposed the pregnant Cordelia to a teratogenic gas. All survived, including the fetus, but the baby was born with several birth defects, including most notably brittle bones.
That covers the first two books in the series (in a really frighteningly abrupt manner that leaves a ton of important stuff out!), and in The Warrior's Apprentice we are introduced to Miles Vorkosigan, who has grown up in a world that hates and fears "mutants" like himself. Unable to depend on physical prowess, Miles instead relies on his powers of observation and quick-thinking wit. He doesn't give in to the urge for self-pity, but he isn't one-dimensional caricature of a man driven by demons either. Bujold tends to write his stories from his perspective, so we get lots of visibility to what's going on in his head, and he's always thinking ten steps ahead (as is required of him). In The Warrior's Apprentice, he fails to get into the Barrayaran Military Academy due to his physical infirmities, after which he stumbles into a military conflict involving mercenaries, eventually improvising a mercenary fleet of his own (called the Dendarii Free Mercenaries) and foiling a political plot against his father. His mercenary fleet only knows him as Miles Naismith and does not know of his connections to Barrayar, which is a good thing, because Miles and his father propose making them Barrayar's secret army. Impressed, but given few options, the young Emperor pulls strings to get Miles accepted into the Barrayaran Military academy. Whew. That took longer and was probably more spoilery than I intended, but it gives you the appropriate background (I assure you, Bujold is much better at explaining all this! Read the first three books!)
I heartily recommend the series. If you're interested, I would start with Shards of Honor (or the omnibus edition called Cordelia's Honor, which features Shards of Honor and the hugo-award winning Barrayar) which primarily deals with Miles's parents, or The Warrior's Apprentice (which is probably easier found as part of the omnibus called Young Miles, which features The Warrior's Apprentice, "The Mountains of Mourning" from Borders of Infinity (another Hugo winner), and The Vor Game (yet another Hugo award winner)). Actually, I think those two omnibus editions are an excellent deal, and will give you a significant amount of the series with just two purchases... Well worth it, if you ask me.
Posted by Mark on September 11, 2011 at 08:42 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
More on Spoilers
I recently wrote about the unintended consequences of spoiler culture, and I just came across this post which has been making waves around the internets. That post points to a study which concluded that readers actually like to have a story "spoiled" before they start reading.
The U.C. San Diego researchers, who compiled this chart showcasing the spoiler ratings of three genres (ironic twist stories, mysteries or literary stories), posited this about their findings: "once you know how it turns out, it’s cognitively easier - you’re more comfortable processing the information - and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story."Jonah Lehrer apparently goes so far as to read the last 5 pages of the novels he reads, just so he has an idea where the story's headed. He clearly approves of the research's conclusions, and makes a few interesting observations, including:
Surprises are much more fun to plan than experience. The human mind is a prediction machine, which means that it registers most surprises as a cognitive failure, a mental mistake. Our first reaction is almost never “How cool! I never saw that coming!” Instead, we feel embarrassed by our gullibility, the dismay of a prediction error. While authors and screenwriters might enjoy composing those clever twists, they should know that the audience will enjoy it far less.Interestingly, a few years ago, I posted about this conundrum from the opposite end. Author China Miéville basically thinks it's extremely difficult, maybe even impossible, to write a crime story or mystery with a good ending:
Reviews of crime novels repeatedly refer to this or that book’s slightly disappointing conclusion. This is the case even where reviewers are otherwise hugely admiring. Sometimes you can almost sense their bewilderment when, looking closely at the way threads are wrapped up and plots and sub-plots knotted, they acknowledge that nothing could be done to improve an ending, that it works, that it is ‘fair’ (a very important quality for the crime aficionado - no last-minute suspects, no evidence the reader hasn’t seen), that it is well-written, that it surprises… and yet that it disappoints.There's a lot to parse out above, but I have two thoughts on the conclusions raised by the original study. First is that there may actually be something to the cognitive benefits theory of why people like this. The theory and methodology of interpretation of text is referred to as hermeneutics*. This is a useful field because language, especially figurative language, is often obscure and vague. For example, in the study of religious writings, it is often found that they are written in a certain vernacular and for a specific audience. In order to truly understand said writings, it is important to put them in their proper cultural and historical context. You can't really do that without knowing what the text says in the first place.
This is what's known as the hermenutic circle. It's kinda like the application of science to interpretation. Scientists start by identifying a problem, and they theorize the answer to that problem. In performing and observing their experiment to test the problem, they gain new insights which must then be used to revise their hypothesis. This is basically a hermeneutic circle. To apply it to the situation at hand: When reading a book, we are influenced by our overall view of the book's themes. But how are we to know the book's themes as a whole if we have not yet finished reading the parts of the book? We need to start reading the book with our own "pre-understanding", from which we hypothesize a main theme for the whole book. After we finish reading the book, we go back to each individual chapter with this main theme in mind to get a better understanding of how all the parts relate to the whole. During this process, we often end up changing our main theme. With the new information gained from this revision, we can again revise our main theme of the book, and so on, until we can see a coherent and consistent picture of the whole book. What we get out of this hermeneutic circle is not absolute and final, but it is considered to be reasonable because it has withstood the process of critical testing.
This process in itself can be fulfilling, and it's probably why folks like Jonah Lehrer don't mind spoilers - it gives them a jump start on the hermeneutic circle.
Second, the really weird thing about this study is that it sorta misses the point. As Freddie points out:
The whole point of spoilers is that they're unchosen; nobody really thinks that there's something wrong with people accessing secrets and endings about art they haven't yet consumed. What they object to is when spoilers are presented in a way that an unsuspecting person might unwittingly read them. The study suggests that people have a preference for knowing the ending, but preference involves choice. You can't deliberately act on a preference for foreknowledge of plot if you are presented the information without choosing to access it.And that's really the point. Sometimes I don't mind knowing the twist before I start watching/reading something, but there are other times when I want to go in completely blind. Nothing says that I have to approach all movies or books (or whatever) exactly the same way, every time. And context does matter. When you see a movie without knowing anything about it, there can be something exhilarating in the discovery. That doesn't mean I have to approach all movies that way, just that the variety is somethings a good thing.
* - Yeah, I plundered that entry that I wrote for everything2 all those years ago pretty heavily. Sue me.
Posted by Mark on August 17, 2011 at 06:03 PM .: link :.
Sunday, July 17, 2011
The Book Queue
So the last book queue I posted at the beginning of this year had 12 books on it, and I've made great strides against that list. Only 4 remain, and I'm halfway through one of those. I've also read at least 7 other books that weren't on that list (mostly Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga books, of which only the first was on the original list). With only 3 books remaining, I'm looking to fill up the immediate queue again.
The four remaining books from my last queue...
I started Lois McMaster Bujold's long-running series of science fiction novels mostly (but not solely) chronicling the adventures of the physically diminutive but mentally gifted Miles Vorkosigan. So far this year, I've read 7 novels in the (loosely connected) series. I've got a whole stack of other books just waiting on my shelf now too... and Bujold just released a new one last year, so there's always the chance of more books in the future! I don't know if these are the nerdiest books I've ever read, but referring to them as the Vorkosigan Saga certainly makes it seem so... In any case, this is what I've got left in the series. I'm trying not to read too many of these in a row - I can already sense that I'll be a bit bummed when I finish the series because I very much enjoy spending time with these characters: New Stuff
Pretty self explanatory:
Posted by Mark on July 17, 2011 at 01:55 PM .: link :.
Sunday, July 10, 2011
Flow and Games
When I read a book, especially a non-fiction book, I usually find myself dog-earing pages with passages I find particularly interesting or illuminating. To some book lovers, I'm sure this practice seems barbaric and disrespectful, but it's never really bothered me. Indeed, the best books are the ones with the most dog-ears. Sometimes there are so many dog-ears that the width of the book is distorted so that the top of the book (which is where the majority of my dog-ears go) is thicker than the bottom. The book Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi1 is one such book.
I've touched on this concept before, in posts about Interrupts and Context Switching and Communication. This post isn't a direct continuation of that series, but it is related. My conception of flow in those posts is technically accurate, but also imprecise. My concern was mostly focused around how fragile the state of flow can be - something that Csikszentmihalyi doesn't spend much time on in the book. My description basically amounted to a state of intense concentration. Again, while technically accurate, there's more to it than that, and Csikszentmihalyi equates the state with happiness and enjoyment (from page 2 of my edition):
... happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.In essence, the world is a chaotic place, but there are times when we actually feel like we have achieved some modicum of control. When we become masters of our own fate. It's an exhilarating feeling that Csikszentmihalyi calls "optimal experience". It can happen at any time, whether external forces are favorable or not. It's an internal condition of the mind. One of the most interesting things about this condition is that it doesn't feel like happiness when it's happening (page 3):
Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments of our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times - although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.This is an interesting observation. The best times of our lives are often hectic, busy, and frustrating while they're happening, and yet the feeling of satisfaction we get after-the-fact seems worth the effort. Interestingly, since Flow is a state of mind, experiences that are normally passive can become a flow activity through taking a more active role. Csikszentmihalyi makes an interesting distinction between "pleasure" and "enjoyment" (page 46):
Experiences that give pleasure can also give enjoyment, but the two sensations are quite different. For instance, everyone takes pleasure in eating. To enjoy food, however, is more difficult. A gourmet enjoys eating, as does anyone who pays enough attention to a meal so as to discriminate the various sensations provided by it. As this example suggests, we can experience pleasure without any investment of psychic energy, whereas enjoyment happens only as a result of unusual investments of attention. A person can feel pleasure without any effort, if the appropriate centers in his brain are electrically stimulated, or as a result of the chemical stimulation of drugs. But it is impossible to enjoy a tennis game, a book, or a conversation unless attention is fully concentrated on the activity.As someone who watches a lot of movies and reads a lot of books, I can definitely see what Csikszentmihalyi is saying here. Reading a good book will not always be a passive activity, but a dialogue2. Rarely do I accept what someone has written unconditionally or without reserve. For instance, in the passage above, I remember thinking about how arbitrary Csikszentmihalyi's choice of terms was - would the above passage be any different if we switched "pleasure" and "enjoyment"? Ultimately, that doesn't really matter. Csikszentmihalyi's point is that there's a distinction between hedonistic, passive experiences and complex, active experiences.
There is, of course, a limit to what we can experience. In a passage that is much more concise than my post on Interrupts and Context Switching, Csikszentmihalyi expands on this concept:
Unfortunately, the nervous system has definite limits on how much information it can process at any given time. There are just so many "events" that can appear in consciousness and be recognized and handled appropriately before they begin to crowd each other out. Walking across a room while chewing bubble gum at the same time is not too difficult, even though some statesmen have been alleged to be unable to do it; but, in fact, there is not that much more that can be done concurrently. Thoughts have to follow each other, or they get jumbled. While we are thinking about a problem we cannot truly experience either happiness or sadness. We cannot run, sing, and balance the checkbook simultaneously, because each one of those activities exhausts most of our capacity for attention.In other words, human beings are kinda like computers in that we execute instructions in a serial fashion, and things like context switches are quite disruptive to the concept of optimal experience3.
Given all of the above, it's easy to see why there isn't really an easy answer about how to cultivate flow. Csikszentmihalyi is a psychologist and is thus quite careful about how he phrases these things. His research is extensive, but necessarily imprecise. Nevertheless, he has identified eight overlapping "elements of enjoyment" that are usually present during flow. Through his extensive interviews, he has noticed at least a few of these major components come up whenever someone discusses a flow activity. A quick summary of the components (pages 48-67):
First, to a large extent, I think this helps explain why video games are so popular. Indeed, many of the flow activities in the book are games or sports. Chess, swimming, dancing, etc... He doesn't mention video games specifically, but they seem to fit the mold. Skills are certainly involved in video games. They require concentration and thus often lead to a loss of self-consciousness and lack of awareness of the outside world. They cause you to lose track of time. They permit a palpable sense of control over their digital environment (indeed, the necessity of a limited paradigm of reality is essential to video games, which lends the impression of control and agency to the player). And perhaps most importantly, the goals are usually very clear and the feedback is nearly instantaneous. It's not uncommon for people to refer to video games in terms of addiction, which brings up an interesting point about flow (page 70):
The flow experience, like everything else, is not "good" in an absolute sense. It is good only in that it has the potential to make life more rich, intense, and meaningful; it is good because it increases the strength and complexity of the self. But whether the consequences of any particular instance of flow is good in a larger sense needs to be discussed and evaluated in terms of more inclusive social criteria. The same is true, however, of all human activities, whether science, religion, or politics.Flow is value neutral. In the infamous words of Buckethead, "Like the atom, the flyswatter can be a force for great good or great evil." So while video games could certainly be a flow activity, are they a good activity? That is usually where the controversy stems from. I believe the flow achieved during video game playing to be valuable, but I can also see why some wouldn't feel that way. Since flow is an internal state of the mind, it's difficult to observe just how that condition is impacting a given person.
Another implication that kept occurring to me throughout the book is what's being called "The gamification of everything". The idea is to use the techniques of game design to get people interested in what are normally non-game activities. This concept is gaining traction all over the place, but especially in business. For example, Target encouraged their cashiers to speed up checkout of customers by instituting a system of scoring and leaderboards to give cashiers instant feedback. In the book, Csikszentmihalyi recounts several examples of employees in seemingly boring jobs, such as assembly lines, who have turned their job from a tedious bore to a flow activity thanks to measurement and feedback. There are a lot of internet startups that use techniques from gaming to enhance their services. Many use an awards system with points and leaderboards. Take FourSquare, with its badges and "Mayorships", which turns "going out" (to restaurants, bars, and other commercial establishments) into a game. Daily Burn uses game mechanics to help people lose weight. Mint.com is a service that basically turns personal finance into a game. The potential examples are almost infinite4.
Again, none of this is necessarily a "good" thing. If Target employees are gamed into checking out faster, are they sacrificing accuracy in the name of speed? What is actually gained by being the "mayor" of a bar in Foursquare? Indeed, many marketing schemes that revolve around the gamification of everything are essentially ways to "trick" customers or "exploit" psychology for profit. I don't really have a problem with this, but I do think it's an interesting trend, and its basis is the flow created by playing games.
On a more personal note, one thing I can't help but notice is that my latest hobby of homebrewing beer seems, at first glance, to be a poor flow activity. Or, at least, the feedback part of the process is not very good. When you brew a beer, you have to wait a few weeks after brew day to bottle or keg your beer, then you have to wait some time after that (less if you keg) before you can actually taste the beer to see how it came out (sure, you can drink the unfermented wort or the uncarbonated/unconditioned beer after primary fermentation, but that's not an exact measurement, and even then, you have to wait long periods of time). On the other hand, flow is an internal state of mind. The process of brewing the beer in the first place has many places for concentration and smaller bits of feedback. When I thought about it more, I feel like those three hours are, in themselves, something of a flow activity. The fact that I get to try it a few weeks/months later to see how it turned out is just an added bonus. Incidentally, the saison I brewed a few weeks ago? It seems to have turned out well - I think it's my best batch yet.
In case you can't tell, I really enjoyed this book, and as longwinded as this post turned out, there's a ton of great material in the book that I'm only touching on. I'll leave you with a quite that seems to sum things up pretty well (page 213): "Being in control of the mind means that literally anything that happens can be a source of joy."
1 - I guess it's a good thing that I'm writing this as opposed to speaking about it, as I have no idea how to pronounce any part of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's name.
2 - Which is not to take away the power of books or movies where you sit down, turn your brain off, and veg out for a while. Hey, I think True Blood is coming on soon...
3 - This is, of course, a massive simplification of a subject that we don't even really understand that well. My post on Interrupts and Context Switching goes into more detail, but even that is lacking in a truly detailed understanding of the conscious mind.
4 - I have to wonder how familiar Casinos are with these concepts. I'm not talking about the games of chance themselves, though that is also a good example of a flow activity (and you can see why gambling addiction could be a problem as a result). Take, for example, blackjack. The faster the dealer gets through a hand of blackjack, the higher the throughput of the table, and thus the more money a Casino would make. Casinos are all about probability, and the higher the throughput, the bigger their take. I seriously wonder if blackjack dealers are measured in some way (in terms of timing, not money).
Posted by Mark on July 10, 2011 at 07:44 PM .: link :.
Sunday, July 03, 2011
The Unintended Consequences of Spoiler Culture
Chuck Klosterman's recent article over at Grantland (Bill Simmons' new site) features some interesting musings on twist endings and the spoilers that can (potentially) ruin them.
...could The Sixth Sense exist today?It's an interesting premise, but even Klosterman admits that it's impossible to know for sure. He gives a few examples: the aforementioned The Sixth Sense, the semi-recently concluded TV show Lost, and the new TV show The Killing. I think part of the problem with the article, though, is that it lacks some of the context of what makes these particular twists work.
Take The Sixth Sense. Writer and director M. Night Shyamalan, as of right now, is almost comically known for his reliance on twists, but it's important to remember that back in 1999, Shyamalan was an unknown. The movie was basically a Bruce Willis vehicle, and even then, it was dumped into theaters in August, the month Hollywood releases movies to die. So what does all that mean? Well, there wasn't much buzz about the movie beforehand - few people were following the making of the movie, thus they didn't have to worry much about spoilers on the internet (and while it's probably worse today, there were still plenty of movie rumor sites active back in the day). The only thing the filmmakers needed to do was to ensure that the marketing didn't give away the twist1... and luckily, the film had other readily marketable elements.
Shyamalan's problems came later and are mostly his own fault. After the twist ending of Unbreakable, he had pretty much pigeon-holed himself as a twist ending writer. Twists rely on an audience that isn't expecting a twist. This works in a movie like The Sixth Sense because there were lots of other things going on. The reason the twist works so well is that the film wasn't asking you to explain anything throughout the film. The ending provided an answer to a question we didn't realize needed asking. And it did so in a way that didn't feel cheap or contrived. It just fit. But it probably wouldn't work so well if you were looking for it all throughout the film.
This is where Klosterman's point comes in. Once you're known for writing twists, it becomes much more difficult to pull them off. I readily agree that Shyamalan and Damon Lindelof (of Lost) will have trouble writing a new movie/show that is heavily reliant on twists... but only because both of those writers have abused the twist in their previous work. The same goes for most TV series, especially police procedurals, all of which tend to fall into certain established patterns of red herrings, etc... A while ago, in reference to Hitchcock's earliest works, I made a similar observation:
...the "twist" at the end of the story wasn't exactly earth-shattering. These days, we're so zonked out on Lost and 24 that our minds immediately and cynically formulate all the ways the filmmakers are trying to trick us. Were audiences that cynical 80 years ago? Or did the ending truly surprise them?In this respect, Klosterman is certainly correct: if audiences are looking for your twist, you're going to have a really rough time. So writers known for their twists - even if it's just one big twist - will have to contend with that.
The problem here is that this doesn't necessarily mean that Hollywood is skewing away from twists... just that writers like Shyamalan and Lindelof are. Nothing's stopping anyone else from writing a twist ending, and there's no real shortage of examples, even in the past couple years (I have a whole category devoted to plot twists in the yearly Kaedrin Movie Awards). They just happen to come from movies where we're not necessarily looking for the twist2.
Klosterman also points out that hiding the twist can also lead to disappointment. His chief example:
Take the 2008 sci-fi film Cloverfield: The marketing campaign was flawless. Without revealing any aspect of the story, the trailers for Cloverfield made it clear that something cataclysmic was going to happen in New York, and that this massive event was some unthinkable secret. Considering how the media now operates, the makers of Cloverfield did a remarkable job of keeping its details clandestine. Yet this secrecy probably hurt the film's ultimate reception — when people realized it was "only" an updated version of a traditional monster movie, they were often disappointed.Well, that's certainly one way to look at it. Another way to look at it was that audiences were disappointed because the movie kinda sucked3. Also, that's a "twist" manufactured by marketing, not one related to storytelling or anything. In a very real sense, Super 8 has similar issues, though I think that ended up being a much better movie.
Ultimately, I think the "twist" is here to stay. Oh sure, it may go away for a while as the Shyamalans and Lindelofs of the world move on to more straightforward narratives. But the twist will make a comeback soon enough, just when we least expect it. Which is, of course, the whole point of a twist.
1 - This is not a trivial challenge. Terminator 2: Judgment Day provides an interesting example. Watch that film with a blank slate, and you'll notice that it's written as if the audience doesn't know that Schwartzenegger's terminator is a "good guy" and that Robert Patrick's T-1000 is the villain. In the absence of marketing, it would be reasonable for someone not familiar with the movie to assume that it's following the same pattern as the previous installment. When I was little, I was a huge Terminator fan, so I distinctly remember a lot of the marketing surrounding T2... and they gave all of it away. Of course, the reveal happens relatively early in the film, but I still remember finding it a bit weird that they spent so much time trying to obscure what everyone already knew.
2 - The first example that came to mind was kinda odd because it's not very prominent in it's film (and I doubt anyone would call it out in a discussion of twists), but I always liked it: the last scene in Batman Begins (in the board room, not the action sequence on the train) is wonderful, and I think it did more to cement how much I liked that movie than anything else. It fits very well with the story, and there are even hints about it earlier in the movie. But it's an action film and the twist was far away from most of the central plot points, so I never saw it coming.
3 - I guess that's a bit unfair. The film has its merits, but most people who saw it complained about the shaky cam much more than the fact that it was a monster movie. Seriously, even I had problems with the camerawork in that movie making me sick, and I'm normally fine with that sort of thing. The premise is actually the best part about the movie - a monster movie told from the perspective of normal folks fleeing the attack. No spunky scientist teaming up with a hardened military veteran to take down the monster, just normal folks trying to survive. Unfortunately, the execution of this was... lacking.
Posted by Mark on July 03, 2011 at 03:23 PM .: link :.
Sunday, June 26, 2011
Tasting Notes - Part 4
Another edition of Tasting Notes, a series of quick hits on a variety of topics that don't really warrant a full post. So here's what I've been watching/playing/reading/drinking lately:
Posted by Mark on June 26, 2011 at 06:22 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
How Boyd Wrote
I'm currently reading a biography of John Boyd, and in light of Sunday's post, I found a recent chapter particularly interesting. Boyd was a Fighter Pilot in the Air Force. He flew in Korea, made a real name for himself at Fighter Weapons School (which was later copied by the Navy - you may have heard of their version: Top Gun), and spent the latter part of his career working on groundbreaking strategic theories. He was an instructor at FWS for several years, and before leaving, he made his first big contributions to the Air Force. He wrote a tactics manual called Aerial Attack Study. Despite the passage of Vietnam and the Gulf War, nothing substantial has been added to it. It's served as the official tactics manual all over the world for over 40 years (actually, more like 50 at this point).
And Boyd almost didn't write it. Robert Coram (the author of the aforementioned biography) summarizes the unconventional manner in which the manual was written (on page 104 of my edition):
Boyd could not write the manual and continue flying and teaching; there simply wasn't enough time. Plus, the idea of sitting down at a desk and spending hundreds of hours writing a long document brought him to the edge of panic. He was a talker, not a writer. When he talked his ideas tumbled back and forth and he fed off the class and distilled his thoughts to the essence. But writing meant precision. And once on paper, the ideas could not be changed. ...It's a subject I didn't really cover much in my last post: the method of communication can impact the actual message. The way we communicate changes the way we think. Would Boyd's work have been as great if he didn't dictate it? Maybe, but it probably wouldn't have been the same.
Incidentally, I don't normally go in for biographies, but this is an excellent book so far. Part of that may be that Boyd is a genuinely interesting guy and that he was working on stuff that interests me, but I'm still quite enjoying myself.
Posted by Mark on May 25, 2011 at 08:09 PM .: link :.
Sunday, April 24, 2011
Tasting Notes - Part 3
Another edition of Tasting Notes, a series of quick hits on a variety of topics that don't really warrant a full post. So here's what I've been watching/playing/reading/drinking lately:
Posted by Mark on April 24, 2011 at 06:36 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Recent Television on DVD/BD
I don't watch a lot of live television, but thanks to the magic of DVD/BD/Netflix Instant, I can catch up on a series pretty quickly if I want to. The biggest issue with this approach happens when the series isn't done yet, and you have to then either slow down and wait between episodes (and deal with things like commercials!) or wait a year or more for the next set of DVDs to come out. That being said, watching a TV series like this can get really addictive, really fast. Here's a few things I've been watching lately:
Update: Damn you, cliffhanger! (Just finished the last episode of Sherlock.)
Posted by Mark on March 23, 2011 at 08:35 PM .: link :.
Sunday, March 20, 2011
SF Book Review, Part 6
It's been a while since I followed up on my book queues (and some of the books on here weren't even on the queue, they just jumped to the top of the queue - which is probably why the queue is so long).
Posted by Mark on March 20, 2011 at 07:58 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, February 02, 2011
I'm currently reading Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, by Clay Shirky. There seems to be a pattern emerging from certain pop-science books I've been reading in the past few years. Namely, a heavy reliance on fascinating anecdotes, counter-intuitive psychology experiments, and maybe a little behavioral economics thrown in for good measure. Cognitive Surplus most certainly fits the mold. Another book I've read recently, How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, also fits. Most of Malcolm Gladwell's work does too (indeed, he's a master of the anecdote).
I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with this format. In fact, it can be quite entertaining and sometimes even informative. But sometimes I feel a bit uncomfortable with the conclusions that are drawn from all of this. Anecdotes, even well documented anecdotes, can make for great reading, but that doesn't necessarily make them broadly applicable. Generalizing or extrapolating from anecdotes can lead to some problematic conclusions. This is a difficult subject to tackle though, because humans seem to be hard wired to do exactly that. The human brain is basically a giant heuristic machine.
This is not a bad thing. Heuristics are an important part of human life because we usually don't always have all the information needed to use a more reliable, logical process. We all extrapolate from our own experiences; that is to say, we rely on anecdotal evidence in our daily lives all the time. It allows us to operate in situations which we do not understand.
Unfortunately, it's also subjective and not entirely reliable. The major issue is that it's rather easy to convince yourself that you have properly understand the problem, when in fact, you don't. In other words, our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence. As a result, we see things like Cargo Cults. Security beliefs and superstitions are also heuristics, albeit generally false ones. But they arise because producing such explanations are a necessary part of our life. We cannot explain everything we see, and since we often need to act on what we see, we must rely on less than perfect heuristics and processes.
So in a book like Cognitive Surplus, there's this instinctual impulse to agree with conclusions extrapolated from anecdotes, which is probably the source of my discomfort. It's not that I doubt the factual content of the anecdotes, it's that I'm not always sure how to connect the anecdote with the conclusion. In many cases, it seems like an intuitive leap, but as previously noted, this is a subjective process.
Of course, Shirky does not rely solely on anecdotal evidence in his book (nor do the other authors mentioned above). There are the aforementioned psychology experiments and behavioral economics studies that rely on the scientific notions of strictly controlled conditions and independent reproduction. The assumption is that conclusions extrapolated from this more scientific data are more reliable. But is it possible that they could suffer from the same problems as anecdotes?
Maybe. The data is almost always presented in an informal, summarized format (very similar, in fact, to the way anecdotes are formed), which can leave a lot of wiggle room. For instance, strictly controlled conditions necessary to run an experiment can yield qualifying factors that will make the results less broadly applicable than we may desire. I find this less troubling in cases where I'm already familiar with a study, such as the Ultimatum Game. It also helps that such a study has been independently reproduced countless times since it first appeared, and that many subsequent tests have refined various conditions and variables to see how the results would come out (and they all point in the expected direction).
Later in the book, Shirky references an economic study performed on 10 day-care centers in Haifa, Israel. I will not get into the details of the study (this post is not a review of Shirky's book, after all), except to say that it was a single study, performed in a narrow location, with a relatively small data set. I don't doubt the objective results, but unlike the Ultimatum Game, this study does not seem to have a long history of reproduction, nor did the researchers conduct obvious follow-up experiments (perhaps there are additional studies, but they are not referenced by Shirky). The results seem to violate certain economic assumptions we're all familiar with, but they are also somewhat intuitive when you realize why the results came out the way they did. On the other hand, how do we know why they came out that way? I'm virtually certain that if you vary one particular variable of the experiment, you'll receive the expected result. Then what?
I don't mean to imply that these books are worthless or that they don't contain valuable insights. I generally find them entertaining, helpful and informative, sometimes even persuasive. I like reading them. However, reading a book like this is not a passive activity. It's a dialogue. In other words, I don't think that Cognitive Surplus is the last word on the subjects that Shirky is writing about, despite a certain triumphal tone in his writing. It's important to recognize that there is probably more to this book than what is on the page. That's why there's a lengthly Notes section with references to numerous papers and studies for further reading and clarification. Cognitive Surplus raises some interesting questions and it proposes some interesting answers, but it's not the end of the conversation.
Update: I thought of a few books that I think are better about this sort of thing, and there's a commonality that's somewhat instructive. One example is The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, by Barry Schwartz. Another is Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The interesting thing about both of these books is that they are written by researchers who have conducted a lot of the research themselves. Both of them are very careful in the way they phrase their conclusions, making sure to point out qualifying factors, etc... Shirky, Gladwell, etc... seem to be summarizing the work of others. This is also valuable, in its own way, but perhaps less conclusive? (Then again, correlation does not necessarily mean causation. This update basically amounts to heuristic, and one based on the relatively small sample of pop-science books I've read, so take it with a grain of salt.)
Again Update: I wrote this post before finishing Cognitive Surplus. I'm now finished, and in the last chapter, Shirky notes (pages 191-192):
The opportunity we collectively share, though, is much larger than even a book's worth of examples can express, because those examples, and especially the ones that involve significant cultural disruption, could turn out to be special cases. As with previous revolutions driven by technology - whether it is the rise of literate and scientific culture with the spread of the printing press or the economic and social globalization that followed the invention of the telegraph - what matters now is not the new capabilities that we have, but how we turn those capabilities, both technical and social, into opportunities.In short, I think Shirky is acknowledging what was making me uncomfortable throughout the book: anecdotes and examples can't paint the whole picture. Shirky's book is not internet triumphalism, but a call to action. I suppose you could argue that even the assertion that these opportunities exist at all is a form of triumphalism, but I don't think so.
Posted by Mark on February 02, 2011 at 08:27 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Over the past year or so, I've been making my way through seasons 2-6 of Lost. I watched the first season on DVD shortly after it came out, and after following along with the broadcast for a couple weeks of season 2, I resolved to stop watching until I had some indication that the show would actually end (i.e. I was worried the writers would continually make stuff up and withhold any answers indefinitely). I dutifully avoided most contact with the series until early last year. By that time, the writers had declared a definite ending point and from observations of friends' responses to new episodes, I gathered that the show was picking up steam, rather than bogging down.
As you might imagine, given the fact that I pretty much ignored the series for a few years there, I'm not a huge fan of the series. I didn't actively dislike it either, I was just never hooked or convinced that it was going anywhere interesting. But then there were some things I was able to glean about what was happening and then Netflix made all of the seasons available on their Watch Instantly service, at which point, I had no real excuse to keep avoiding it. I burned through season 2 pretty quickly, though again, I was pretty unimpressed. Season 3 was even more of a slog, though I had been warned that this was the case. Apparently during the course of Season 3, the writers/producers agreed on an ending (or at least, how many more seasons/episodes remained). There was an almost immediate improvement in the quality of the episodes, but again, I was not terribly impressed.
Don't get me wrong, I was enjoying myself. I had no issues burning through a bunch of episodes all at once, and having the entire series at my fingertips made that prospect all too easy. Nevertheless, I never really had a problem taking a break either. Last year, I gave up Television for Lent. Despite just having started season 3, I had no problem staying away for 40 days. Later in the year, when I had finished season 5, but season 6 wasn't available on DVD/Netflix yet, I wasn't all that broken up about it. If this was a show that I loved, such delays would have been quite frustrating. As it was, I'm lucky I even remembered to check for season 6.
Ultimately, I'm glad that I did. I still have a lot of issues with the series as a whole, and even the last season itself, but in the end, I found it to be a worthwhile venture. I've tried to avoid Spoilers for most of this post, but there are some things you may not want to know and there are definitely spoilers towards the end of the post. To summarize my thoughts, I found the ending of the series to be emotionally satisfying, but not intellectually satisfying.
This is actually an interesting reaction for me, because I usually respond in the opposite way. For example, a few years ago, I saw the movie Capote and thought it was fantastic. The writing, the acting, the direction, cinematography, just about everything about the film was extremely well done. On an intellectual level, I found it amazing. On an emotional level, I didn't connect with it nearly as well. I have no idea why. There were a couple of scenes towards the end of the film where I kept thinking to myself This is devastating! and yet, I never actually felt devastated myself. I only really recognized the devastation on an intellectual level. There are lots of other movies I feel similarly about, and it's a real shame, because that feeling (or lack of feeling, as it were) leaves those films feeling a bit hollow in my mind.
Lost (at least, the final season) ended up being the opposite, especially when it came to the "Flash-Sideways" sequences. Nothing seemed to make much sense intellectually, but it was emotionally satisfying nonetheless. I'm sure there are tons of people who hate those sequences. They're full of sticky-sweet sentimentality and schmaltz. I'm a guy who doesn't mind a happy ending, but lots of people seem to hate them. You often see these people excoriating Hollywood cinema for this sort of thing, and to be honest, they're not entirely wrong. But sometimes they are, and for me, Lost worked. At least, in that specific respect, it worked.
I think my problems with the series have primarily to do with a few early choices that the writers seemed to get away from in later seasons. First, the series initially seemed like a science fiction story. It is not. It is a fantasy. But the writers attempted to use tropes from SF to spice up their story (in particular, the Dharma Initiative and time travel subplots), and that does represent a bit of a problem because the explanation for a lot of the mysterious happenings on the island basically amount to something like "A wizard did it!" or "It was magic!" Even when it comes to the time travel stuff, there isn't really any science in that fiction - it's all fantasy. There isn't anything inherently wrong with that sort of thing, but leveraging SF tropes implies a certain plausibility that Lost could never really deliver. Once I realized this, I became a little more accepting of some of the more ridiculous aspects of the series, most of which can be summed up as: The island is a weird place and Jacob has weird powers. However, I think there were a number of times when the series established some convention or set of rules, then went ahead and broke them for no other reason than that it would, like, totally make for a sweet cliffhanger. I think this is, in large part, why the series is not intellectually satisfying for me.
This sort of inconsistency was especially frustrating from a characterization standpoint. Jack and Kate love each other, but then Kate loves Sawyer, but Sawyer's evil, no wait he's just a con-man with a heart of gold, but then he does something evil again, but he's really a good guy, but no, he's only out for himself, but then he gets married and settles down and now he wants to kill Jack, but Jack loves Juliet, but Juliet is married to Sawyer even though she really loves Jack, but they're divorced and did I mention that Sawyer is selfish and only looking out for himself but that he's in love with Kate, no, wait, I meant Juliet and then Ben loves Juliet but she doesn't really care, but Jack and Juliet are divorced and Kate and Jack are together but then they're separated and Jack wants to leave the island, but only until he wants to return to the island because it's his destiny, but no, really it's Hugo's destiny, but Jack still has some sort of destiny on the island and isn't meth awesome!?
Now, here's the thing: most of that is actually fine. I don't have a problem with a character who changes their mind or goes through something traumatic and is changed in the process. The issue is that many of these changes happen only because the plot requires them to, not because of a natural outgrowth or reaction of the character. Even worse, the plot often doesn't require such twists - they're only included to make for a snappy cut to commercial or cliffhanger ending. So you get these weird character reversals where Kate wants to leave the island, but she doesn't want to leave, but she does, but she doesn't. All within the course of, like, 15 minutes. I don't know, maybe I'm exaggerating. I didn't make a note every time I thought to myself: Wait, what? Why would this character do that? Oh dammit, end of episode, fuck! But I know I had such thoughts often. (If I ever rewatch the series, I will try to document these occurrences).
Perhaps towards the end of the fifth season and leading into the sixth, this issues seemed to straighten out a bit. I didn't have nearly as many problems during the sixth season. Maybe that's because my brain was so addled by the previous seasons that I knew what to expect, but still, things seemed more consistent. Of course, this only leads to my next question, which is: What the hell were the first 5 seasons for again?
I mean, there's a very basic conflict at the heart of the Lost universe. Jacob vs. Smoke Monster. Protect the magic golden light. That's really it. The rest of the series is basically just some messed up people trying to work through some personal issues. Some of them think the island can help, most don't, but in the end, the island brought them together and ultimately brought out the best in them (well, in a bunch of them). That's all background though, and the aforementioned central conflict? It isn't even revealed in the series until, like, late in the fifth season. We don't even hear Jacob's name until the third season, and even when we think we've seen him, we haven't.
I can accept the fact that it takes a good amount of time to establish characters and their backgrounds and the series is fantastically complex when it comes to that web of character interactions, on and off the island, in the future and in the past. But did we really need 4-5 seasons of that before we got on with the actual story?
Well, this post is turning into a bit of rant about the things I didn't like about the series, and that's not what I initially set out to do. None of the above is to say that the series isn't worthwhile. Indeed, much of it could be construed as nitpicks. I don't think it's possible to have a show air for 6 seasons and not have such nitpicks. Shit happens. A cast member want to quit, so you need to write a quick exit (bye bye, Mr Eko!). Other cast members demand way too much money and a couple others get a DUI so they all need to be written off. These things happen.
And even then, the writers managed to build a story with, like, a hundred main characters. That sounds like hyperbole, and I suppose it is, but it's not that far off. What's more, most of those characters are interacting, before, during, and after their stay on the island. The non-linear exploration of such connections is actually pretty impressive in its own way. If you're a science fiction type, you certainly won't be impressed because there's no real explanation beyond "Magic" or "Destiny" or "Fate" or something, but there is something admirable about the number of characters and the extent to which their stories were woven together. The "Flashback" conceit was something I was quite dubious about at the beginning of the series, but the writers managed at least one shocking twist in that respect. The "Flash-forward" was a brilliant idea, and it was quite well executed. The "Flash-sideways" of the last season was a little baffling, but quite resonant from an emotional perspective.
So we come back to my basic feeling about the series: satisfying on an emotional level, but not on an intellectual level. I have my issues with the series, but it's still a well produced, well written series that can get addictive at times (of course, I was able to stop when i wanted as well, but there were a lot of Dammit! Ok, one more episode! moments as the writers laid one of their cliffhangers on me - even some of the lame ones that break character are still compelling in some way).
Posted by Mark on January 26, 2011 at 08:36 PM .: link :.
Sunday, January 23, 2011
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher
One of the themes of 2010 cinema has been a question of reality. Is what we're watching real? Or is it a fabrication? Or perhaps some twisted combination of the two? Interestingly, this theme can be found in the outright fictional (films like Inception certainly induce questions of reality), the ostensibly true story that is notably and obviously fictionalized (a la The Social Network), and most interestingly of all, the documentary. Films like Catfish and Exit Through the Gift Shop are certainly presented as fact, though many questions have arisen about their verisimilitude. Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck collaborated on I'm Still Here, a supposed documentary about Phoenix's strange transition from a well known actor to a crazy aspiring rapper that Phoenix and Affleck have since admitted was something of a hoax (I have not seen the film, but from what I can see, many of the events certainly did happen, even if they were manufactured). In most cases, audiences don't seem to mind the blurring of reality with fiction (this includes myself), so long as that blurring is made clear (that may sound paradoxical, but it is perhaps better understood as the main component of the Reflexive Documentary: movies that acknowledge the biases of the filmmakers and the subjectivity of the material at hand are more trustworthy than movies that claim objectivity). Indeed, one could probably make a case for the presence of fiction in most non-fiction stories. Bias, subjectivity, and context can yield dramatically different results depending on how they're portrayed.
It is in this frame of mind that I picked up The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale. It was immediately obvious that I was in for something that blurred the lines between fact and fiction. As Summerscale herself acknowledges in the introduction (page XIII):
This book is modelled on the country-house murder mystery, the form that the Road Hill case inspired, and uses some of the devices of detective fiction. The content, though, aims to be factual. The main sources are the government and police files on the murder, which are held in the National Archives at Kew, south-west London, and the books, pamphlets, essays and newspaper pieces published about the case in the 1860s, which can be found in the British Library. Other sources include maps, railway timetables, medical textbooks, social histories and police memoirs. Some descriptions of buildings and landscapes are from personal observation. Accounts of the weather conditions are from press reports, and the dialogue is from testimony given in court.Even with the acknowledgement, the book is an odd amalgam of embellished factual accounts of a horrific murder, straightforward biographical information of the titular Johnathan Whicher and the family Kent, and a survey of mid-nineteenth century detective fiction. There are times when Summerscale follows one of these three tangential threads too far, but for the most part, she manages to weave them together in a deft and engaging fashion.
The mystery at the center of the book concerns a gruesome murder of three-year-old Saville Kent in 1860. Local police bumbled through the investigation, eventually leading the government to dispatch Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Jack Whicher to the small town to investigate. Whicher sized up the situation and quickly came to the shocking conclusion that the murderer must have been a member of the Kent household. Everyone from Saville's father to his nursemaids came under suspicion, though Whicher favored Saville's half-sister, Constance Kent. However, Whicher had been brought into the case nearly a week after the murder. The evidence was mostly circumstantial and most leads had gone cold before he even started the case.
And it was a very odd case. It's easy to see why fiction authors appropriated so much from the story in later novels. Every clue, every piece of new information, every close examination of the evidence at hand seemed to make the case less clear. Summerscale writes (page 75):
The family story that Whicher pieced together at Road Hill House suggested that Saville's death was part of a mesh of deception and concealment. The detective stories that the case engendered, beginning with The Moonstone in 1868, took this lesson. All the suspects in a classic murder mystery have secrets, and to keep them they lie, dissemble, evade the interrogations of the investigator. Everyone seems guilty because everyone has something to hide. For most of them, though, the secret is not murder. This is the trick on which detective fiction turns.Summerscale delves into the tricks of Whicher's trade from time to time, and it does make for fascinating reading. I love to read about the devils in the details on which something like this murder mystery hinges. For instance, one of the mini-mysteries the case presents us with is a missing nightdress. This sounds like a minor detail, but Whicher immediately seizes upon the missing clothing as a precious clue. Summerscale takes the opportunity to describe the origins of the word "clue" and why Whicher was so keen on solving the mini-mystery of the missing nightdress (from page 68):
The word ‘clue’ derives from ‘clew,’ meaning a ball of thread or yarn. It had come to mean ‘that which points the way’ because of the Greek myth in which Theseus uses a ball of yarn, given to him by Ariadne, to find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. The wirters of the mid-nineteenth century still had this image in mind when they used the word… a plot was a knot, and a story ended in a 'denouement', an unknotting.Summerscale then proceeds to detail several cases where Whicher himself managed to solve a crime due to the fortuitous discovery of unique or identifiable clothing, eventually concluding (from page 70):
The thread that led Theseus out of the maze was true to another principle of Whicher’s investigation: the progress of a detective was backwards. To find his way out of danger and confusion, Theseus had to retrace his steps, return to the origin. The solution to a crime was the beginning as well as the end of a story.I have a fascination with such details, so of course I wouldn't have minded if Summerscale indulged in more of such analysis, but it's clear that she was trying to walk a tight line. I would be easy to stray too far from her focus on the mystery and the man sent to investigate, and she manages to walk that line well enough.
Whicher is an interesting man in himself. Most of what we know about him is in his police reports and correspondence. I would have loved to read more about the man, but from what I can tell, Summerscale has unearthed every conceivable piece of knowledge about the man, and still came up a bit short. As a plain-clothes detective, he obviously avoided attention as much as possible, which probably explains some of the missing information - for instance, there doesn't appear to be any pictures or paintings of the main available. That being said, he's certainly a worthy subject for study. He seems to possess keen observational skills as well as a knack for finding holes in a story and clues. He appears quite confident in his perceptions, though as the subhead of the book notes, he is somewhat shaken by the mystery at Road Hill House. His initial investigation yielded no convictions and he returned to London a different man, though I think calling this his "Undoing" is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. Indeed, after Summerscale establishes the central mystery, I feared that the subhead implied that no solution would really be found.
Fortunately, there is a closure of sorts, though I will not spoil the book by delving too deeply into that here. Suffice to say that by the end of the book, we are a bit closer to what actually happened, though the inherent difficulty of rebuilding a picture of the past is one of the themes of the book. In today's day and age, with TV shows like CSI showing what you can do with forensics in explicit detail, it's easy to forget how difficult it would be to figure out what happened in the past (and to be honest, even given the advanced forensic technology available, shows like CSI still gloss over the difficulties of a murder investigation). Mr. Whicher had no such forensic luxuries in his day and had to rely on his cunning and intuition, perhaps moreso than would be comfortable with modern populations. Indeed, one of the undercurrents of the book is how England was reacting to the notion of a "detective" - a concept that was somewhat new to the world. Many felt that detectives were too intrusive and seedy, in it only for the money or glory. Whicher does not seem like that type though. He's reserved and curious, confident in his prowess, but honorable in his manner.
Of course, I'm basing my opinion of the man on what could be argued is a partially-fictional representation of the man and his actions. This question of what is real and what is fiction is something that kept coming to mind while reading this book. Part of that might be the year in film, as previously mentioned, but I think other readers would find such questions arising when reading the book as well. Of the three main components of the story I mentioned earlier (murder mystery, biography, and survey of detective fiction), it is the latter that calls reality into question the most. There seems to be a general idea that quoting fiction in a formal argument is bad form, and as such I can see some people being taken aback by Summerscale's book. While impeccably researched and sourced, she does give the book a flare you don't normally see in non-fiction. As she mentions in her introduction, she uses many devices of detective fiction in her writing. She directly references detective fiction of the day, as well as authors like Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, and Wilkie Collins (Arthur Conan Doyle is not really referenced until later in the book, as Doyle did not start writing his Sherlock Holmes books until well after Whicher's heyday). Some of these references are to non-fiction - Dickens interviewed Whicher, for instance, and Summerscale includes many of Dickens' insights into Whicher and the case at Road Hill House - but some references are directly from detective fiction. Again, some might find that inappropriate, but I'm sympathetic to such techniques, and I think Summerscale does an exceptional job mixing fact and fiction, to the point where I don't think the book would be as informative or interesting if it didn't mix those seemingly incompatible components. Ultimately, I think this combination yields some insights that a traditional scholarly effort might have missed, and I quite enjoyed the book for the way it treated both real and fictional detectives (page 304):
Perhaps this is the purpose of detective investigations, real and fictional - to transform sensation, horror and grief into a puzzle, and then to solve the puzzle, to make it go away. 'The detective story," observed Raymond Chandler in 1949, 'is a tragedy with a happy ending.' A storybook detective starts by confronting us with a murder and ends by absolving us of it. He clears us of guilt. He relieves us of uncertainty. He removes us from the presence of death.It was a good read, and I would recommend it to any one interested in mysteries or the era. Special thanks to longtime Kaedrin reader and friend, Spencer, for giving me this book.
Posted by Mark on January 23, 2011 at 03:48 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, January 05, 2011
The Book Queue (Updated)
According to my records, I read 21 books last year. This is not a large number by any means, but it was an improvement over recent years. Earlier in the year, I posted my book queue, featuring 10 books that I had sitting on my shelves (an unprecedented number of unread books for me, as I usually don't work that far ahead of myself) and of course, I've only read 7 of those. So three of the below are repeats, and in looking at some other previous lists, there's a couple other repeat books as well. Then there are several new additions, meaning that somehow that unprecedented list of 10 unread books has actually grown despite my reading 21 books last year. Score. Anyway, for the record, these are the books:
Posted by Mark on January 05, 2011 at 09:35 PM .: link :.
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Another edition of Tasting Notes, a series of quick hits on a variety of topics that don't really warrant a full post [Previous Editions: part 1 | part 2]. So here's what I've been watching/playing/reading/drinking lately:
Posted by Mark on November 28, 2010 at 07:37 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Earlier in the year, I had noticed a pile of books building up on the shelf and have made a concerted effort to get through them. This has gone smoothly at times, and at other times it's ground to a halt. Then there's the fact that I can't seem to stop buying new books to read. Case in point, during the Six Weeks of Halloween, I thought it might be nice to read some horror, and realized that most of what I had on my shelf was science fiction, fantasy, detective fiction, or non-fiction (history, technology, biography, etc...) So I went out and picked up a collection of Richard Matheson short stories called Button, Button (the title story was the source material for a very loose film adaptation, The Box).
It was a very interesting collection of stories, many of which play on variations of the moral dilemma most famous in the title story, Button, Button:
"If you push the button," Mr Steward told him, "somewhere in the world, someone you don't know will die. In return for which you will receive fifty thousand dollars."In the film adaptation, the "reward" was raised to a million dollars, but then, they also added a ton of other stuff to what really amounts for a tight, 12 page story. Anyway, there are lots of other stories, most containing some sort of moral dilemma along those lines (or someone exploiting such a dilemma). In particular, I enjoyed A Flourish of Strumpets and No Such Thing as a Vampire, but I found myself most intrigued by one of the longer stories, titled Mute. I suppose mild spoilers ahead, if this is something you think you might want to read.
The story concerns a child named Paal. His parents were recent immigrants and he was homeschooled, but his parents died in a fire, leaving Paal to the care of the local Sheriff and his wife. Paal is a mute, and the community is quite upset by this. Paal ends up being sent to school, but his seeming lack of communication skills cause issues, and the adults continually attempt to get Paal to talk.
I will leave it at that for now, but if you're at all familiar with Matheson, you can kinda see where this was going. What struck me most was how much a sign of the times this story was. Of course, all art is a product of its cultural and historical context, but for horror stories, that must be doubly so. Most of the stories in this collection were written and published in the 1950s and early 1960s, which I find interesting. With respect to this story, it's primarily about the crushing pressure of conformity, something that was surely on Matheson's mind after having just finished of the uniformity of the 1950s. The cultural norms of the 50s were perhaps overly traditional, but after having witnessed the deadliest conflict in human history in the 1940s, you can hardly blame people for wanting some semblance of tradition and stability in their lives. Of course, that sort of uniformity isn't really natural evil, and like a pendulum, things swing from one extreme to the other, until eventually things settle down. Or not.
Anyway, writing in the early 60s (or maybe even the late 50s), Matheson was clearly disturbed by the impulse to force conformity, and Mute is a clear expression of this anxiety. Interestingly, the story is almost as horrific in today's context, but for different reasons. Matheson was writing in response to a society that had been emphasizing conformity and had no doubt witness such abuses himself. Interestingly, the end of the story is somewhat bittersweet. It's not entirely tragic, and it's almost an acknowledgement that conformity isn't necessarily evil.
It was not something easily judged, he was thinking. There was no right or wrong of it. Definitely, it was not a case of evil versus good. Mrs. Wheeler, the sheriff, the boy's teacher, the people of German Corners - they had, probably, all meant well. Understandably, they had been outraged at the idea of a seven-year-old boy not having been taught to speak by his parents. Their actions were, in light of that, justifiable and good.In today's world, we see the opposite of the 1950s in many ways. Emphasis is no longer placed on conformity (well, perhaps it still is in some places), but rather a rugged individuality. There are no one-size fits all pieces of culture anymore. We've got hundreds of varieties of spaghetti sauce, thousands of music choices that can fit on a device the size of a business card, movies that are designed to appeal to small demographics, and so on. We deal with problems like the paradox of choice, and the internet has given rise to the niche and concepts like the Long Tail. Of course, rigid non-conformity is, in itself, a form of conformity, but I can't imagine a story like Mute being written in this day and age. A comparable story would be about how lost someone becomes when they don't conform to societal norms...
Posted by Mark on November 10, 2010 at 09:23 PM .: link :.
Sunday, August 22, 2010
SF Book Review, Part 5
Still working my way through the book queue, here are a few SF books I've read recently. [See also: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]
Posted by Mark on August 22, 2010 at 08:12 PM .: link :.
Sunday, August 15, 2010
Back when I first got my PS3 and started looking for good gaming podcasts, one of the things I found was the already defunct (but awesome) GFW radio (If you're not familiar, this 4 hour best-of compilation will keep you busy for a while and is well worth a listen). Despite the fact that all the regulars had left 1up to pursue other careers, I delved a bit into their back catalog of podcasts, and in one episode they mentioned an interesting book called Game Boys: Professional Videogaming's Rise from the Basement to the Big Time by Michael Kane. It sounded interesting so I ordered a copy and promptly put it on my shelf, where it gathered dust and got buried under other books. Earlier this year, I vowed to clear off my shelf and read these suckers (7 out of 10 down and only 2 new books added in the meantime!), and I just finished reading Game Boys last week.
The book delves into the world of competitive video gaming and essentially follows two teams of Counter-Strike players as they vie to become the best US gaming team. One team, called 3D, has heavyweight sponsors like Intel and Nvidia. Their players tend to pull in around $30k a year in salary, plus any winnings from tournaments. At the start of the book, they're pretty much the uncontested champions of the US circuit. After all, most players at tournaments are talented amateurs playing for the love of the game. They can't really compete with professional players who spend full workday's practicing CS. But then we find out about team compLexity. This team also plays its players a salary, but it doesn't have any major sponsors. Their manager/coach, Jason Lake, is funding the entire enterprise out of pocket because he believes that professional gaming is the way of the future and he wants to get in on the ground floor. As the book progresses, we see Lake struggle to find sponsors and when we find out that he's sunk in about $200k of his own cash, we can't help but feel a little bad for the guy. He's middle aged, has a family and a successful law practice, but his passion seems to be getting professional gaming off the ground.
Lake fancies himself a coach and he seems to be a stereotypical jock. He paces behind his team, cheering them on and generally getting fired up as the matches progress. Interestingly, one of the angles that the author highlights frequently is how gamers at this level aren't necessarily the fat slobs who spend all their time in the basement staring at their computer - indeed, many seem to be former jocks who realized they couldn't cut it at their sport of choice and turned to video games as something they could do really well. Kane perhaps goes a bit overboard with this angle at times, but it's interesting that the biggest competitors in video gaming tend to come from actual physical gaming backgrounds.
The author, Michael Kane, didn't really come from a video gaming background. He was a sports journalist who did a story on competitive gaming and got intrigued. As such, the book reads like a standard sports underdog story, with Lake's compLexity taking the role of the scrappy, underrated upstarts, while team 3D (lead by manager Craig Levine, who doesn't take the same "coach"-like role that Lake does) are portrayed as the unbeatable champions. As one player describes, 3D is like the Yankees and compLexity is like the Red Sox. Of course, that's not exactly the case, but the human drama represented by that dynamic is one of the interesting things that draws you in when reading the book.
As a sports journalist, Kane does an exceptional job explaining the game, whether that be describing the intricacies of the CS maps, the strategies (or strats) used by the teams, or the blow-by-blow accounts of various matches. I've never played CS, but by the end of this book, I think I had a pretty good idea about what makes the game tick. Kane also does a good job describing the interpersonal relationships and team dynamics that drive the competition. He falters a bit when describing biographical details of each player, but while such asides can break the momentum of the book from time to time, it's still good information and gives the later chapters more of a sense of urgency.
The most interesting thing about the book is Kane's description of competition at the highest level, and how gaming was constantly struggling to break into the mainstream. As previously mentioned, the players aren't quite the pimply nerd types as you might assume, and the way Kane describes their various talents is interesting. Team 3D seems to have a more tumultuous lineup, as their manager, Craig Levine, will ruthlessly replace players who don't play well. Towards the beginning of the book, team 3D suffers a setback and Levine shakes things up by rehiring a former player, with the gamer handle of Moto. Moto is 23 years old and while he was once a top player (Kane describes one infamous game which has coined the term Moto Box), his skills have declined considerably. To make up for these shortcomings, he is able to devise complicated strategies and formal drills for his team that can give them a bit of an edge. Moto also seems to be much better at handling media attention than any other player, and this is something that Levine was counting on... Levine seems to be a savvy businessman. He's recognized that there's money to be made from gaming, and he sees 3D as one part of a larger scheme. Having Moto on the team is not so much about 3D winning as it is about getting gaming to a mainstream audience. This, of course, doesn't sit so well with teammate Rambo, who has a much different philosophy. As one of the elite players, he doesn't care for the precision strategies designed for Moto - he's much more of a run-and-gunnner, and he's got the skills to pull it off. Moto and Rambo clash for most of the book, and it presents an interesting dynamic.
Team compLexity, on the other hand, seems to have a tighter-knit crew of players. The star of the team, and perhaps the best player in the world (at the time), is fRoD, and the team basically revolves around him. fRoD has an amazing kill ratio and is unstoppable with a sniper rifle. Storm takes on the thankless role of defense, but I think Kane does an exceptional job describing the value of Storm's defensive prowess. Warden seems like the team leader, holding the five players together (and late in the book, he single-handedly keeps compLexity alive). Towards the end of the book, at a big, fancy tournament being put on by DirecTV, one of the precursor events is a series of drills meant to test each players skills - things like speed and tracking.
No one from compLexity cracked the top five, a further testament that their success comes more from teamwork and coordination than individual skills. Either that or they tanked it on purpose... (page 232)The rivalry between 3D and compLexity is the center of the book, but along the way, we're treated to lots of other amusing details about the game, culture, and the goings on at various tournaments. Highlights include an embarrassing appearance by born-again Christian Stephen Baldwin (page 106), the gamers of the Mug N Mouse team (amateur players with drug habits and probably criminal records who share a practice venue with team 3D), and amusing gamer tags (my favorite of which appears on page 136: "Ryan's alias was 'TedDanson,' which may be the greatest gamer tag ever on the grounds of weirdness alone.")
This is surprisingly compelling stuff. As previously mentioned, the pacing is sometimes a bit uneven, but once Kane has established the players and the details of the game, it becomes riveting. There are some occasional mistakes (for instance, early in the book, Kane mentions that Halo 3 sold something like 4 billion copies in the first day) as well, but overall, Kane has done an exceptional job capturing what it's like to play video games at the highest level. As with anything involving that level of skill, there are fascinating intricacies and unintended consequences when you see players at that level. It's well worth a read if you're interested in video games or even if you just like a well written sports story.
As someone mentioned in the podcast referenced above, this seems like ideal fodder for the documentary crew that made The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. There's a surprising amount of drama in the book, especially towards the end, as DirecTV seems poised to launch gaming as a mainstream event. Of course, the book was published in 2008 and covers events leading up to the establishment of 2007's DirecTV gaming league. Here in 2010, we know that DirecTV has cancelled the league and while the gaming tournaments continue, there isn't as much interest in mainstream competitive gaming on TV these days.
The events leading up to DirecTV's kickoff event are interesting to read because presenting a game of Counter-Strike to a mainstream audience presents numerous challenges. First of all, watching people play video games has never been a particularly entertaining venture. The game does allow a sorta free-roaming camera for spectators, but it's still a challenge - there's 10 people playing, and you never know where the excitement will happen. Then you have to consider that most people in a potential mainstream audience won't have any idea what's going on in the game. Long-time players will recognize the maps, the strats, the weapons, and so on, but a newcoming won't have any of that shared background.
The events of the book were happening just after poker had exploded onto television. But the difference between poker and Counter-Strike is that everyone knows what's happening in poker. Comparatively few people know the intricacies of CS. The problem with professional gaming in the long run is that it has to feature a game that nearly everyone is familiar with. In Korea, nearly everyone plays StarCraft, so it makes some sort of sense when you watch a video like this (ok, no, that video still blows my mind - look at their uniforms! Look at the crowd!) Such a thing isn't really possible in the US because while video games in general are quite popular, there's no single game that everyone can get on board with.
Kane's book proves that Counter-Strike can be made accessible to just about anyone (his sports writing background ensures that sort of tone), but I just can't see that translating to a full blown sports league that people will tune into every week. That being said, the book works well for what it is, and it covers an interesting and seemingly pivotal period of gaming.
Posted by Mark on August 15, 2010 at 07:09 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
So Nick from CHUD recently revived the idea of a "Tasting Notes..." post that features a bunch of disconnected, scattershot notes on a variety of topics that don't really warrant a full post. It sounds like fun, so here are a few tasting notes...
Posted by Mark on July 14, 2010 at 07:38 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, June 02, 2010
About a week ago at the SF App Show, an alpha version of something called The Mongoliad was presented. The description shows promise:
The Mongoliad is a sort of serialized story, created by Neal Stephenson, and written by Neal, Greg Bear, Nicole Galland, and a number of other great authors. It will be told via custom apps on iPad, iPhone, Kindle, and Android, and will be something of an experiment in post-book publishing and storytelling.Besides Kaedrin favorite Neal Stephenson, the project also seems to be attracting some other high profile talent like Greg Bear. The use of New Media apps to deliver the stories gives pause, and I have to wonder if this is being optimized for the form factor of the medium, or if it's just because that's the hot new thing to do... Details of the project are a bit scarce, buy you can find some info at the Subtai Corporation page as well as their Facebook page. The overview on the Facebook site gives a little more info on the setting and the plan for populating the world with stories...
The Mongoliad is a rip-roaring adventure tale set 1241, a pivotal year in history, when Europe thought that the Mongol Horde was about to completely destroy their world. The Mongoliad is also the beginning of an experiment in storytelling, technology, and community-driven creativity.Still not sure if the New Media route is the best way to distribute this sort of information, but it at least seems like a better medium than the standard dead tree novel. The other piece of info that's come out about the project is that it will apparently be seeking fan submissions:
Very shortly, once The Mongoliad has developed some mass and momentum, we will be asking fans to join us in creating the rest of the world and telling new stories in it. That’s where the real experiment part comes in. We are building some pretty cool tech to make that easy and fun, and we hope lots of you will use it.It's an interesting concept, and not something I can think of seeing before. There have been various experiments in serialized novels being released on the web, but I can't think of anything massively successful and nothing quite this ambitious has been tried. Stephenson's involvement pretty much guarantees that I'll be trying this app out, but I have to admit to being a bit skeptical about the fan-fiction aspect and the post-book ambitions. I think it's a worthy effort though, and I'm glad to see people of this caliber willing to experiment with new forms like this.
Another funny note about Stephenson, from Subutai's team page:
He is also the Company’s armorer, in charge of developing and producing helmets, gauntlets, and other such protective items as may be required.Heh. Other members of the team seem to have their own funny quirks as well. If nothing else, it's an interesting idea, and I'm looking forward to it...
Posted by Mark on June 02, 2010 at 10:58 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:
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.
Posted by Mark on May 02, 2010 at 10:37 AM .: link :.
Wednesday, March 03, 2010
Various and Sundry
I must get back to being an inadvertently incompetent FBI agent in Heavy Rain (in fairness, my private eye is doing a stellar job), so just a few short notes:
Posted by Mark on March 03, 2010 at 08:54 PM .: link :.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Is Inglourious Basterds Science Fiction?
John Scalzi recently tackled the question of whether or not Quentin Tarantino's WWII epic Inglourious Basterds qualifies for science fiction. Unfortunately, I should mention at this point that the rest of this post contains mild spoilers about the movie. If you haven't seen it, I recommend it (also, it was my favorite movie of 2009).
In any case, the entire argument hinges around the SF sub-genre of alternate history. In such stories, authors will change some aspect of history in order to explore some sort of narrative idea. This type of story takes all sorts of forms, such as Phillp K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, where Dick speculates about what would have happened if the Axis powers won WWII. There are tons of other examples. I've never read one of his books, but I know Harry Turtledove has made something of a career out of similar alternate history stories. Often, the alternate history comes about due to some form of time travel (such as The End of Eternity) or speculation about the many worlds theory of parallel universes (such as Anathem).
A more recent example of the genre is Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Set in the present day, that book's alternate timeline starts that during WW II, when a temporary settlement for Jewish refugees was established in Alaska. Chabon uses the premise to explore Jewish social and cultural issues, but never really uses "science" to explain his settings (i.e. there's no time travel or mention of parallel universes, etc...) This is a particularly relevant example because it really does skirt the boundaries of several genres (the book reads more like a noir detective story than a SF tale), yet it's generally considered part of the SF canon. We'll revisit this book later in this post.
Without getting into too much detail, let's just say that at a certain point in the movie, Tarantino diverges significantly from history. As Scalzi points out, the movie is still very much a WWII movie, but by the end, it's just not quite the same WWII as what's in the history books.
In his post, Scalzi outlines 4 arguments against the interpretation that Basterds is SF. However, I don't find them entirely convincing:
1. It wasn't marketed as science fictionWhile true from a factual standpoint, I don't find this argument at all convincing. It wasn't marketed as SF because the SF elements were meant to be a surprise. Marketing it as an alternate history would be akin to marketing The Sixth Sense as a movie in which Bruce Willis plays a ghost. It's also worth noting that the marketing for a movie isn't always entirely accurate. This is especially true when it comes to cross-genre pieces like Basterds. By necessity, marketing simplifies a given movie to it's basest, most salable features. Indeed, the marketing campaign for Basterds focused almost entirely on Brad Pitt's motley crew of Nazi-hunters and their action packed exploits, yet those characters are not really the focus of the film and indeed, several of the main characters are barely mentioned. So no, it's not surprising that the marketing didn't focus on the SF aspects of the story. That doesn't necessarily make it less of a SF story.
2. The science fictional aspects of the movie are not necessarily essential to itOn this point, I wholeheartedly disagree. Scalzi does admit that changing the SF aspects would make it a different movie, but what he doesn't note is that the movie would be drastically inferior in that case. Without the ending (which is where the SF elements really kick in), the movie might still work, but it wouldn't work nearly as well as it did. That ending is necessary to the success of the movie. It's also worth noting that the movie does start with some premises that could be considered SF. For instance, take the trailer for the movie in which Brad Pitt gives a speech to his men on their upcoming mission. This scene ostensibly takes place before the D-Day invasion of Germany and it assumes a lot of things. For instance, it's revealed that all the members of the squad are Jewish. As present day audiences, we know what this means (and Tarantino is certainly counting on that), but in reality, while the Allies knew of Nazi antisemitism in a general sense, the specifics of the Holocaust were not known until after the invasion when various concentration camps and mass graves were discovered. Now, I'm not going to call this science fiction, but it's clear that Tarantino is counting on audience knowledge of the Holocaust during this scene, and he uses that knowledge to his advantage. This is something that will come up again later in this post.
3. It's kinda more like fantasy than scifi anywayThis is certainly a fair point, but at the same time, a lot of what we consider SF could also be termed "Fantasy". You could probably make a compelling argument that Star Wars is more fantasy than SF. Perhaps this is why SF and fantasy seem to get lumped together in bookstores and whatnot. There is certainly a fantasy element to Basterds though, but I'm just not sure if it outweighs the SF elements.
4. If Inglourious Basterds is science fiction, so are most historical moviesAnother fair point and probably the most compelling among Scalzi's arguments, though I think some important distinctions need to be made here. Movies like Gladiator and Braveheart just contain bad history. For the most part, the people who made those movies were altering history to make for more entertaining narratives, and they knew they could get away with it because 99.9% of the audience doesn't know or care about the real history involved (and in all fairness, such tactics work - both are very good movies).
With Inglourious Basterds, something different is happening. Scalzi even mentiones that "Tarantino's messing with history we actually still remember." And that's important because Tarantino is attempting something subversive. Unlike Gladiator and Braveheart, Basterds actually relies on the audience's knowledge of history. This is a movie that wouldn't work nearly as well if you didn't know anything about WWII. In terms of information theory, Tarantino is making masterful use of exformation whereas movies like Gladiator change history with the confidence that the audience won't notice or care. In short, changing history is the whole point of Basterds, whereas it's just used to spice up the narrative in Gladiator and Braveheart.
In a very real sense, the primary theme of Basterds is the transformative power of cinema. To achieve this goal, Tarantino employs several techniques. One is the direct role of cinema in the plot. A British film critic and a German actress team up with the Basterds to accomplish a specific goal. At several points, discussions of classic German cinema become integral to the plot. Old nitrate filmstock becomes a key plot element. The final showdown occurs in a movie theater that's run by our heroine. And so on. There's obvious symbolism at work there. But let's return to the idea of exformation, as it's an interesting topic (and one I've mentioned before). In short, exformation refers to communication that is dependent on a shared body of knowledge between the parties involved. Wikipedia has a great anecdotal example:
In 1862 the author Victor Hugo wrote to his publisher asking how his most recent book, Les Misérables, was getting on. Hugo just wrote “?” in his message, to which his publisher replied “!”, to indicate it was selling well. This exchange of messages would have no meaning to a third party because the shared context is unique to those taking part in it. The amount of information (a single character) was extremely small, and yet because of exformation a meaning is clearly conveyed.In the case of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino uses exformation masterfully. He knows what the audience knows about WWII and he plays on that. At first, he does so with small things, like the all-Jewish Basterds team (which, at first glance, plays like a Braveheart-style historical inaccuracy, but upon further reflection once the film is over, you can see that Tarnatino is really foreshadowing his subversion of history). A movie like Braveheart diminishes in value when you learn more about the true historical basis for the story. I'm sure there are plenty of historians who get incredibly frustrated when watching a movie like that. But Inglourious Basterds only grows stronger, even as you learn more about the historical basis for that film. For instance, the film does not require you to know all about prewar German cinema, but it certainly could be enhanced by such knowledge.
Take the aforementioned symbolic components, add in Tarantino's use of exformation to manipulate audiences, and then look at how the ending cements the whole film (this is another strike against Scalzi's second point). It's not just that Tarantino doesn't follow history in his movie, it's that he explodes history. He's making an audacious and subversive statement about the power of cinema, and he knows he can go over the top with it because we already know about WWII (not because he thinks he can get away with a few historical inaccuracies).
However, it is interesting to note how history often plays a role in science fiction literature. Indeed, for a while, it seemed like a lot of science fiction authors were leaving behind their SF roots in favor of historical fiction. For example, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, both known for their dystopic cyberpunk work, went out on a limb and published The Difference Engine. Similarly, Kaedrin favorite Neal Stephenson went from his popular futuristic stories in Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, the semi-historical WWII/present day thriller Cryptonomicon. He then dove even further into the past with the massive Baroque Cycle, a series of books that took place in late 17th, early 18th centuries. It did concern itself with the emergence of modern science and featured notable scientists and organizations like the Royal Society. In an interview with Salon, Stephenson speculated about whether or not the Baroque Cycle was SF:
I always make it clear that I consider myself a science fiction writer. Even the "Baroque Cycle" fits under the broader vision of what science fiction is about.And he also mentions SF's relationship with history:
There was a review of "Cryptonomicon" with a line in it that struck me as interesting. The guy said, "This is a book for geeks and the history buffs that they turn into." I'm turning into one.Of course, he does note that this fits under a "broader vision" of science fiction, but at the same time, there's more to it than just the subject matter and ideas. Science fiction authors approach the world in a certain way, and that sort of thing tends to come through in their writing, even if what they're writing is not science fiction in the strictest sense. So while The Baroque Cycle is primarily a historical series, it's got some science in it and it reads enough like science fiction that SF fans can appreciate it without any issue.
But the difference between Tarantino and Stephenson is that Stephenson fully acknowledges his SF roots, while Tarantino has not. This is why I previously brought up Michael Chabon's novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Like Tarantino, Chabon is not known primarily for science fiction work. Yet he produced this exceptional alternate history novel that ended up winning the Hugo award for best novel. There are a lot of other similarities between Chabon's book and Tarantino's movie. Both are set in an alternate universe, but neither really explores the speculative aspects of their situations. Chabon's novel probably comes closer to doing so and does not rely on the alternate history as a surprise or shock in the way that Basterds does. Both the novel and the movie are cross-genre stories (the novel using elements of noir and the detective story; the movie using war movie tropes). I don't remember any marketing around The Yiddish Policeman's Union, but I remember being surprised that it won the best novel Hugo (this was before I had read the book and known about its alternate history premise), so I'm guessing that neither movie really calls itself SF.
Then again, the Hugo website does note:
Science Fiction? Fantasy? Horror?And so we finally arrive at the classic classification problem. What is science fiction anyway? It turns out that according to the Hugos, it's whatever they say is SF. Going by Stephenson's broader definition, it makes sense that a book like The Yiddish Policeman's Union could win a Hugo, as it certainly contains its fair share of interesting ideas. Similarly, I think that Inglourious Basterds could easily be considered SF. It contains interesting ideas and is reliant on relatively sophisticated information theory concepts like exformation.
Observant readers may notice that the Kaedrin Movie Awards contains a category for best SF or Horror film, and that Inglourious Basterds was absent from the nominations in that category. So it seemed that back then, I didn't consider it SF enough to nominate. And now? I think it certainly could (and it would have won). But I think what it really comes down to is the Hugo test: Do most people consider it SF? And that's where I think my argument that it is SF falters. I think most people do not think of it as a SF movie. This may stem from the nature of the plot, which makes it hard to market the movie as SF (and to Scalzi's point there, blatant categorizations like SF exist for marketing purposes in the first place). Tarantino isn't generally associated with the SF world and isn't calling the movie SF either, which also tends to diminish my argument. But after thinking about it, I still like to think of it as SF. It may not be like any other alternate history story, but just because it's wholly unique in that respect doesn't make it less of a SF movie.
Posted by Mark on February 21, 2010 at 07:00 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
More on Visual Literacy
In response to my post on Visual Literacy and Rembrandt's J'accuse, long-time Kaedrin friend Roy made some interesting comments about director Peter Greenaway's insistence that our ability to analyze visual art forms like paintings is ill-informed and impoverished.
It depends on what you mean by visually illiterate, I guess. Because I think that the majority of people are as visually literate as they are textually literate. What you seem to be comparing is the ability to read into a painting with the ability to read words, but that's not just reading, you're talking about analyzing and deconstructing at that point. I mean, most people can watch a movie or look at a picture and do some basic contextualizing. ... It's not for lack of literacy, it's for lack of training. You know how it is... there's reading, and then there's Reading. Most people in the United States know how to read, but that doesn't mean that they know how to Read. Likewise with visual materials--most people know how to view a painting, they just don't know how to View a Painting. I don't think we're visually illiterate morons, I just think we're only superficially trained.I mostly agree with Roy, and I spent most of my post critiquing Greenaway's film for similar reasons. However, I find the subject of visual literacy interesting. First, as Roy mentions, it depends on how you define the phrase. When we hear the term literacy, we usually mean the ability to read and write, but there's also a more general definition of being educated or having knowledge within a particular subject or field (i.e. computer literacy or in our case, visual literacy). Greenaway is clearly emphasizing the more general definition. It's not that he thinks we can't see a painting, it's that we don't know enough about the context of the paintings we are viewing.
Roy is correct to point out that most people actually do have relatively sophisticated visual skills:
Even when people don't have the vocabulary or training, they still pick up on things, because I think we use symbols and visual language all the time. We read expressions and body language really well, for example. Almost all of our driving rules are encoded first and foremost as symbols, not words--red=stop, green=go, yellow=caution. You don't need "Stop" or "Yield" on the sign to know which it is--the shape of the sign tells you.Those are great examples of visual encoding and conventions, but do they represent literacy? Why does a stop sign represent what it does? There are three main components to the stop sign:
However, it's worth noting that the clear meaning of a stop sign is also due to the fact that it's a near universal convention used throughout the entire world. Not all traffic signals are as well defined. Case in point, what does a blinking green traffic light represent? Blinking red means to "stop, then proceed with caution" (kinda like a stop sign). Blinking yellow means to "slow down and proceed with caution." So what does a blinking green mean? James Grimmelmann tried to figure it out:
It turns out (courtesy of the ODP and rec.travel), perhaps unsurpsingly, that there is no uniform agreement on the meaning of a blinking green light. In a bunch of Canadian provinces, it has the same general meaning that a regular green light does, with the added modifier that you are the undisputed master of all you survey. All other traffic entering the intersection has a stop sign or a red light, and must bow down before your awesome cosmic powers. On the other hand, if you're in Massachusetts or British Columbia and you try a no-look Ontario-style left turn on a blinking green, you're liable to get into a smackup, since the blinking green means only that cross traffic is seeing red, with no guarantees about oncoming traffic.Now, maybe it's just because we're starting to get obscure and complicated here, but the reason traffic signals work is because we've established a set of conventions that are similar most everywhere. But when we mess around with them or get too complicated, it could be a problem. Luckly, we don't do that sort of thing very often (even the blinking green example is probably vanishingly obscure - I've never seen or even heard of that happening until reading James' post). These conventions are learned, usually through simple observation, though we also regulate who can drive and require people to study the rules of driving (including signs and lights) before granting a license.
Another example, perhaps surprising because it is something primarily thought of as a textual medium, is newspapers. Take a look at this front page of a newspaper1 :
Newspapers use numerous techniques (such as prominence, grouping, and nesting) to establish a visual hierarchy, allowing readers to scan the page to find what stories they want to read. In the image above, the size of the headline (Victory!) as well as its placement on the page makes it clear at a glance that this is the most important story. The headline "Miami Police Department Unveils New Pastel Pink and Aqua Uniforms" spans three columns of text, making it obvious that they're all part of the same story. Furthermore, we know the picture of Crockett and Tubbs goes with the same story because both the picture and the text are spanned by the same headline. And so on.
Now I know what my younger readers2 are thinking: What the fuck is this "newspaper" thing you're babbling about? Well, it turns out that a lot of the same conventions apply to the web. There are, of course, new conventions on the web (for instance, links are usually represented by different colored text that is also underlined), but many of the same techniques are used to establish a visual hierarchy on the web.
What's more interesting about newspapers and the web is that we aren't really trained how to read them, but we figure it out anyway. In his excellent book on usability, Don't Make Me Think, Steve Krug writes:
At some point in our youth, without ever being taught, we all learned to read a newspaper. Not the words, but the conventions.The tricky part about this is that the learning seems to happen subconsciously. Large type is pretty obvious, but column spanning? Captions? Nesting? Some of this stuff gets pretty subtle, and for the most part, people don't care. They just scan the page, find what they want, and read the story. It's just intuitive.
But designing a layout is not quite as intuitive. Many of the lessons we have internalized in reading a newspaper (or a website) aren't really available to us in a situation where we're asked to design a layout. If you want a good example of this, look at web pages designed in the mid-90s. By now, we've got blogs and mini-CMS style systems that automate layouts and take design out of most people's hands.
So, does Greenaway have a valid point? Or is Roy right? Obviously, we all process visual information, and visual symbolism is frequently used to encode large amounts of information into a relatively small space. Does that make us visually literate? I guess it all comes down to your definition of literate. Roy seems to take the more specific definition of "able to read or write" while Greenaway seems to be more concerned with "education or knowledge in a specified field." The question then becomes, are we more textually literate than we are visually literate? Greenaway certainly seems to think so. Roy seems to think we're just about equal on both fronts. I think both positions are defensible, especially when you consider that Greenaway is talking specifically about art. Furthermore, his movie is about a classical painting that was created several centuries ago. For most young people today, art is more diffuse. When you think about it, almost anything can be art. I suspect Greenaway would be disgusted by that sort of attitude, which is perhaps another way to view his thoughts on visual literacy.
1 - Yeah, it's the Onion and not a real newspaper per say, but it's fun and it's representative of common newspaper conventions.
2 - Hahaha, as if I have more than 5 readers, let alone any young readers.
Posted by Mark on December 30, 2009 at 07:13 PM .: link :.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Visual Literacy and Rembrandt's J'accuse
Perhaps the most fascinating film I saw at the 18½ Philadelphia Film Festival was Rembrandt's J'accuse. It's a documentary where British director Peter Greenaway deconstructs Rembrandt's most famous painting: Night Watch. It's arguably the 4th most celebrated painting in art history (preceded only by the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel...) and Greenaway believes it's also an accusation of murder. The movie plays like a forensic detective story as Greenaway analyzes the painting from top to bottom. It's an interesting topic for a documentary, though I think the film ultimately falters a bit in it's investigation (either that, or Greenaway is trying to do something completely different).
(Note, you can click on the images below for a higher resolution image.)
Greenaway began his career as a painter and he contends that most people are visually illiterate, which is an interesting point. We really do live in a text-based culture. Our education system encourages textual learning over visuals, from the alphabet to vocabulary and reading skills. The proportion of time spent "reading paintings as they do text" is minute (if it happens at all). As such, our ability to analyze visual art forms like paintings is ill-informed and impoverished. Greenaway even takes the opportunity to rag on the state of modern cinema (which is a whole other discussion, as sometimes even bad movies are visually well constructed, but I digress). In any case, I do think Greenaway has a point here. Our culture is awash in visual information - television, movies, photography, etc... - and yet, we spend very little time questioning the veracity of what we're shown. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, which is really just a way of saying that pictures can easily convey massive amounts of information. Pictures are inherently trustworthy and persuasive, but this can, in itself, cause issues. Malcolm Gladwell examined this in his essay, The Picture Problem:
You can build a high-tech camera, capable of taking pictures in the middle of the night, in other words, but the system works only if the camera is pointed in the right place, and even then the pictures are not self-explanatory. They need to be interpreted, and the human task of interpretation is often a bigger obstacle than the technical task of picture-taking. ... pictures promise to clarify but often confuse. ... Is it possible that we place too much faith in pictures?Gladwell is, of course, casting suspicion on images, but he's actually making many of the same points as Greenaway. What Gladwell is really saying is that human beings are visually illiterate. As Greenaway notes towards the beginning of the film, is what we see really what we see? Or do we only see what we want to see? Both Gladwell and Greenaway seem to agree that interpretation is key (though Gladwell might be a bit more pessimistic about the feasibility of doing so). Though this concept is not explicitly referenced later in the film, I do believe it is essential to understanding the film.
One of the first clues that Greenaway examines is the public nature of Rembrandt's painting. For the most part, public museums didn't start appearing until the mid 19th century. The Night Watch, by contrast, was on public display from day one (1642). In a time where paintings were private luxuries, usually viewed only by the rich and those who commissioned the paintings, the Night Watch was viewed by all. In a lot of ways, the painting is unusual and prompts questions, most of which don't seem to have any sort of satisfactory answers. This leads to all sorts of speculation and theories about the motives behind the painting and what it really depicts. One way to look at it is to view it as an accusation. An indictment of conspiracy. Greenaway starts with this idea and proceeds to examine 34 interconnected mysteries about the painting. The mysteries all server to illuminate one thing: The content of the painting. What is it about? Who are the players? What is the accusation?
I will not go through all 34 mysteries, but as an example, the first mystery is about the Dutch Militia. At the time of the painting, there was a century-long Dutch tradition of the group military portrait. The Dutch had been involved in a long, drawn-out guerrilla war with the Spanish. Local militias were formed all throughout the country to protect their towns from their enemies. These local companies were comprised of regular citizens and volunteers, many of them important local figures, and they liked to have themselves painted, usually in uniform and in a powerful light to inspire solidarity and confidence. As the war wound down, these militias became less about the military and more about politics and power. It was a prestigious thing to be in a militia and they became more of a gentleman's club than a military organization. In the Night Watch, Rembrandt chose to break many of the traditions associated with the common Dutch military portrait. Many of the future mysteries examine these differences in great detail.
After seeing the movie I was struck by numerous things. First, for a filmmaker ostensibly crusading against visual illiteracy, I find it strange that Greenaway has chosen to present his argument as a gigantic wall of text. He narrates the entire film. Occasionally, he'll cut to a "reenactment", which are scenes from his previous film, a fictional retelling of Rembrandt's painting, but even those are comprised primarily of characters spouting dialogue (these scenes rarely provide insight, though it's nice to break up the narration with something a little more theatrical).
Indeed, the grand majority of the mysteries are concerned with context (i.e. the cultural and historical traditions, the timing of the painting, who commissioned the painting, etc...). There is a concept from communication theory called exformation that I think is relevant here.
Effective communication depends on a shared body of knowledge between the persons communicating. In using words, sounds and gestures the speaker has deliberately thrown away a huge body of information, though it remains implied. This shared context is called exformation.Wikipedia also has an excellent anecdotal example of the concept in action:
In 1862 the author Victor Hugo wrote to his publisher asking how his most recent book, Les Miserables, was getting on. Hugo just wrote “?” in his message, to which his publisher replied “!”, to indicate it was selling well. This exchange of messages would have no meaning to a third party because the shared context is unique to those taking part in it. The amount of information (a single character) was extremely small, and yet because of exformation a meaning is clearly conveyed.Similarly, when Rembrandt painted the Night Watch and it was put on display, most of the viewers knew the subjects in the painting and the circumstances in which it was painted. As modern viewers, we do not have any of that shared knowledge. In order to understand the visual of The Night Watch, one must first understand the context of the painting, something that is primarily established through text. For example, one of the mysteries of the painting has to do with the lighting. Rembrandt was one of the pioneers of artificial lighting in paintings, and this was the result of improvements to technology of the day. There were apparently big improvements in the use of candles and mirrors, and so Rembrandt enjoyed playing with lighting, making the painting seem almost theatrical. As modern viewers, this sort of playful use of lighting isn't special - it's something we've seen a million times before and in a million other contexts. In Rembrandt's time, it was different. It called attention to itself and caused much speculation. Modern audiences thus need to be informed of this, and again, Greenaway accomplishes this mostly through the use of text.
To be sure, there are some interesting visualization techniques that Greenaway employs when talking about specific aspects of the painting. For example, when discussing the aforementioned use of lighting, Greenaway does his own manipulation, exagerating the lighting in the painting to underline his point:
Unfortunately, these are not used as often as I would have hoped, nor are they always necessary or enlightening, and indeed there are numerous distractions throughout. For instance, the frame is often comprised of several overlapping and moving boxes. Sometimes this is used well, but it often feels visually overwhelming. Indeed, sometimes the audio is sometimes also overwhelming - with Greenaway's narration being overlaid on top of music and sometimes even a woman's voice which is saying the names of famous people who have seen Night Watch (the inclusion of which has always confused me). I'm sure it's challenging to make a movie about a painting without just putting up a static shot of the painting (and that's certainly not desirable), but does the screen need to be so busy? The visual components of the film seem to take a back seat to the textual elements... Interestingly, this is a film that seems to work a lot better on the small screen, as it's not nearly as overwhelming on the small screen as it was in the theater.
Furthermore, the text presented to us is so dense that it can be hard to follow at times. This at least partially due to the massive amount of exformation, unfamiliar European names, different cultural traditions, etc... There are 34 people depicted in the painting (plus a dog!), and it can be tough to keep track of who is who. I suppose I should not be surprised that someone obsessed with visual literacy is not a master writer, but perhaps there is something else going on here...
Next, I was struck by the inclusion of Greenaway's face, which is often positioned in a box right in the center of the frame. Why do that? Why is he calling so much attention to himself? My first inclination is that it's a breathtakingly arrogant strategy. Also, the sound of his voice (sometimes overly deliberate pronunciation mixed with stereotypical European accent) lends the impression of arrogance and pretentiousness. I think that may still be part of it, but again, there is more going on here.
Look at me!
There are many types of documentary films. The most common form of documentary is referred to as Direct Address (also known as Expositional Mode). In such a documentary, the viewer is directly acknowledged, usually through narration and voice-overs. There is very little ambiguity and it is pretty obvious how you're expected to interpret these types of films. Many television and news programs use this style, to varying degrees of success. Ken Burns' infamous Civil War and Baseball series use this format eloquently, but most traditional propaganda films also fall into this category. The disembodied nature of a voice-over lends an air of authority and even omniscience to a film's subject matter (this type of voice-over is often referred to as "Voice of God" narration). As such, these films are open to abuse through manipulative rhetoric and social propaganda.
By contrast, Reflexive Documentaries use many devices to acknowledge the filmmaker's presence, perspective, and selectivity in constructing the film. It is thought that films like this are much more honest about their subjectivity, and thus provide a much greater service to the audience.
An excellent example of a Reflexive documentary is Errol Morris' brilliant film, The Thin Blue Line. The film examines the "truth" around the murder of a Dallas policeman. The use of colored lighting throughout the film eventually correlates with who is innocent or guilty, and Morris is also quite manipulative through his use of editing - deconstructing and reconstructing the case to demonstrate just how problematic finding the truth can be. His use of framing calls attention to itself, daring the audience to question the intents of the filmmakers. The use of interviews in conjunction with editing is carefully structured to demonstrate the subjectivity of the film and its subjects. As you watch the movie, it becomes quite clear that Morris is toying with you, the viewer, and that he wants you to be critical of the "truth" he is presenting.
Ironically, a documentary becomes more objective when it acknowledges its own biases and agenda. In other words, a documentary becomes more objective when it admits its own subjectivity.
Greenaway could easily have employed a direct address narration with this film, but he does not. Instead, he conspicuously inserts himself right into the middle of the frame. Indeed, later in the film, Greenaway appears dressed in a ridiculous getup more suited to appear within the painting than in the movie. It's almost like he's daring us to question this visual choice. Why?
Perhaps because of the third thing that struck me - Greenaway is the only narrator in the film. Most documentaries feature many talking heads, experts and historians, and even some contrary opinions, among other expositional techniques. This film does not. Why? Could it be that Greenaway's story is complete bullshit? After all, his story is delivered in textual form. With his visuals, Greenaway is emphasizing his own subjectivity. A cursory glance around the internet (hardly a comprehensive search, but still) reveals that Greenaway appears to be the only one who subscribes to this theory of murder and accusation.
So I'm left with something of a dilemma. This movie is an impressive bit of speculation and interpretation, but I have no idea if it's true or not. The visual elements of the film seem to emphasize that it is an emphatically subjective interpretation of the painting, but that this sort of speculation on the visual composition is still important, and that we should do more of this sort of thing (something I would agree with).
Or maybe I'm reading way too much into the movie and he employs so much text simply because he thinks we're visually illiterate morons. At this point, I really don't know how to rate this film. I'm having a lot of trouble gauging how much I enjoyed this film. Upon first viewing it, in the theater, I have to say that I didn't like it very much. And yet, it still fascinated me, to the point where I started writing this post and rewatching the film to make sure my interpretation fit. Indeed, as previously mentioned, I found it much more watchable on the small screen. If this post at all interests you, I suggest checking it out. It's actually available on Netflix's Watch Instantly feature (and thus can be viewed through a computer, a PS3 or XBox or any number of other Netflix streaming ready boxes).
More screenshots and comments in the extended entry...
Update: More on Visual Literacy (in response to comments in this post)
This is the title screen of the film, and it's one example of the sensory overload that Greenaway employs. The building in the background is where the Night Watch now resides (the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam). The shot is taken from far away, with many things in the foreground though, including a police car with flashing lights. Given the murder-mystery nature of the film, that part makes symbolic sense. Making less sense is the additional police car inset on the right of the screen (it's harder to see in a static screenshot, but that box is filmed separatel, and apparently during the day, so the lighting is different. In the movie, that box actually scrolls across the screen.). Inset on the right, is a miniature version of the title screen. I have no idea what purpose that serves. And scrolling from right to left across the bottom of the screen is a list of signatures. These names are the aforementioned famous people who have publicly visited the Night Watch, and they are also being read by a female voice (again, I have no real idea why this is being done, as it only serves to really add to the disorienting sensory experience).
Interwoven within the documentary are scenes from Greenaway's earlier fictional retelling of the same story, Nightwatching. It stars Martin Freeman (who starred in the British Office show and a bunch of other stuff, including The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). I found these scenes really strange at first. They seemed very out of place, at least until I found out that they were from an earlier Greenaway film. Then it made sense.
As previously mentioned, Greenaway does employ some visualization efforts to help call out certain features and structures within the painting. Some of the interesting ones are below. The first is one that silhouettes out the main actors in the drama of the painting. Then there's one that numbers all of the participants (you'll have to click on the image to get a good look at that one). There are a few that attempt to visualize the lines of sight of all the characters (only two are looking directly at the audience - this is one of the mysteries that Greenaway explores).
One of the things that interested me about the film was that many of the "mysteries" are probably things that most people would notice if you asked them to stare at the painting for an hour. They don't have the exformation to read the painting correctly, but they'd easily be able to pick out a lot of the most salient features. For instance, it's easy to question why the girl in the painting is so prominent. It's the brightest part of the painting, and your eyes go there almost immediately upon viewing it. If given some time, you can even see that there's another girl behind the first, and her face is obscured (it turns out that Rembrandt painted it this way because the girl had horrible burns on her face and was thus self-conscious about it). I think the grand majority of the mysteries that Greenaway examines would be found if only someone took the time to really study the painting. Of course, I suspect most people don't actually do that sort of thing, so Greenaway does have a point, but still.
Below is the aforementioned "ridiculous getup" that Greenaway puts on at one point. Again, I think this is how he is stressing his own subjective involvement in what we're seeing.
Well, I think that just about wraps up my thoughts on Rembrandt's J'accuse. In closing, I'll give you one of the final shots of the film, which is a sorta reprise of the title screen. It's still cluttered and busy, but somehow not quite as pointless as the title screen.
It was an intriguing movie, I guess. It would be even more interesting if I could hear what other art historians and experts thought about it...
Posted by Mark on December 13, 2009 at 08:04 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, August 05, 2009
The 2009 Hugos
A few weeks ago, SF author Adam Roberts stirred up quite a storm by suggesting that the nominees for the 2009 Hugo award for best SF/F novel were somewhat lackluster:
Science Fiction Fandom: your shortlists aren’t very good.It is an interesting post, and of course his remarks have engendered all sorts of responses and discussion about the nature of the awards themselves and which books on this year's shortlist deserved or didn't deserve to be there. SF Signal took the opportunity to ask a panel of writers several questions, and since I've been reading a lot of SF lately, I thought it might be fun to answer them myself.
How would you rate the track record of the Hugo Awards at directing readers to the best that the genre has to offer?
A quick glance at the history of the Hugo Award for Best Novel shows a pretty good list of winners. A lot of my favorite SF novels are winners of the Hugo, and several others were at least nominated. Now, I'm far from an authoritative expert on SF novels and I have not read the grand majority of nominated books, but still, the list seems pretty well balanced. It's worth noting that of the past 15 or 20 SF novels I've read, a little more than half have been hugo winners (or nominees), and a hefty portion of my book queue is also represented by Hugo books.
As an award, the Hugo is interesting because it's a popular vote of Worldcon members. You have to pay to be a member, so that weeds out most casual voters, and it's interesting that a lot of Worldcon members are themselves SF authors or otherwise involved in the SF or publishing business world. This seems to present a good mix. Not as insular as something like, say, the Oscars, but not completely populist either. And I think that shows with a lot of the Hugo winners and nominees. Of course, the entire premise of this question relies on a completely subjective evaluation, so all of this should be taken with a grain of salt.
As for this year's slate, well, I've only read 2 of the 5 nominees. Zoe's Tale is an entertaining read and a good book, but I'm surprised it made the shortlist. I certainly don't think it's an embarrassment or anything, and it's a fine book, but the other book on the shortlist that I've read was Anathem, which I loved and which even curmudgeons like Roberts admit probably deserves to be on the list (if not win). With all due respect to John Scalzi, Anathem far outclasses Zoe's Tale. The other nominees include Charlie Stross's Saturn's Children, which I haven't read but given my experience with Stross, I'd wager I wouldn't like. I've never much cared for anything of his that I've read, so when he gets nominated (and he does, just about every year), it seems kinda boring. For all I know, Saturn's Children is the greatest book evar, but I'm doubting it. I admit that I'm intrigued by the premise of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother and as a YA novel, I bet it works pretty well (at the same time, it's not exactly groundbreaking stuff... then again, what is?) Finally, there's Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book, which I don't know much about except that it's a children's book. All in all, not a bad field at all. Not having read a lot of other novels from this year, I can't say if they're truly the best, but there doesn't seem to be any stinkers in the list. It does seem to have a pretty good variety - you've got a children's book (Graveyard Book), a young-adult novel (Little Brother), a book that might as well be young-adult and that features a teenage girl protagonist (Zoe's Tale), a rather standard SF book (Saturn's Children) and an ambitious, epic novel that features numerous philosophical digressions as well as an entire glossary of made-up words and references (Anathem). I suppose that the under-represented group would be authors that focus a lot on style and literary flourish, but that doesn't bother me (though it does seem to bother Roberts).
How well do you think the Hugo shortlist, year over year, represents to the outside world what speculative fiction has to offer?
Since I think the winners, overall, seem to comprise a pretty good list of novels, I think the Hugos do a pretty good job of representing what SF has to offer. Several Hugo winners would make a good first SF novel for a more traditional reader, and there are plenty of other winners that have enough heft to attract more discriminating readers. The one thing that might be a bit strange to outsiders is that SF is more concerned with ideas than stylistic flourishes (something that Roberts seems to lament), but honestly, the focus on ideas is what makes us all love SF in the first place. If you're not into that, your interest in SF will probably be limited to certain authors.
Which of this year's finalists do you predict will receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?
The two frontrunners seem to be Graveyard Book and Anathem. Both Neil and Neal are popular with the SF crowd (both have already won an award), and these two books seem to be quite popular. I'll say that Graveyard Book will win, because I'm assuming it has a broader appeal.
Which of this year's finalists do you think should receive the Hugo award for Best Novel?
If you read this blog, I'm sure you already know that I think that Anathem should win. Even though I haven't read 3 of the other nominees, I'm pretty confident that Anathem would be my favorite. What can I say, I'm a Stephenson junkie.
Which books do you think were missing from this year's list of Best Novel finalists?
And not having ready any other 2009 SF books, I have nothing to contribute here. So there.
Well, there you have it. I'd be interested to see how some others more knowledgeable of the genre would respond to this though. Maybe next year, I'll make sure I read all of the nominees. That way, I could better comment on something like this... Of course, that assumes I ever finish Infinite Jest (which, incidentally, is a SF novel, something I didn't know when I set out to read it). I'm a few hundred pages behind at this point and not sure if I'll be able to make the deadline. But I digress. The Hugos, like any other list of bests, can sometimes leave something to be desired, but that's half the fun of awards and top 10s and the like. Even lists that are generated by hundreds of votes (as opposed to a list collected by an individual) have their interesting bits, and I think the Hugos do a decent job of that.
Posted by Mark on August 05, 2009 at 07:29 PM .: link :.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
SF Book Review, Part 3
I probably should have written this about half a year ago, but better late that never, I suppose (check out Part 1 and Part 2 for more SF). No real theme to the list of books, but a couple were recommended by readers (and both were quite good).
Posted by Mark on July 12, 2009 at 12:14 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, July 08, 2009
Notes from the Infinite Summer, Part I
It's been about 2 weeks since I started reading David Foster Wallace's epic novel Infinite Jest. According to the schedule, I'm about a week behind (thanks a lot, GitS:SAC 2nd Gig). Anime viewing aside, I've been making steady progress and wanted to post some of the stuff I've found interesting so far:
Posted by Mark on July 08, 2009 at 09:31 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
David Foster Wallace's mammoth novel Infinite Jest has been sitting on my shelf, unread, for at leat 5 years. I have noted on frequent occassions that it's a book that I should probably read at some point, but for various reasons, I could never find a time that felt right to read it. I'm not intimidated by its size. My favorite author is Neal Stephenson, and that guy hasn't written a novel shorter than 900 pages since the mid-90s (including the 3 part, 2700 page Baroque Cycle). To me, the problem was always that this novel seemed to be one of those post-modern exercises in literary style and cleverness, and my tolerance for such wankery had waned after reading the hugely complex and impenetrable Gravity's Rainbow (a book I like, to be sure, but that also made me want to chill out for a while). I'm generally a story-is-king kinda guy, so books that focus on exploring language and narrative style ahead of story and plot tend to grate on me unless they're really well done. It's not that such books are bad or that I can't enjoy them, it's just that I think it's a very difficult feat, and so whenever a new book of this style comes along, I have to wonder whether it's worth the trouble.
So the book has sat on my shelf, unread. In the wake of the author's untimely death last year, it seems that some fans have taken it upon themselves to encourage people to read Wallace's masterpiece. Their challenge:
Join endurance bibliophiles from around the world in reading Infinite Jest over the summer of 2009, June 21st to September 22nd. A thousand pages1 ÷ 92 days = 75 pages a week. No sweat.They're calling it Infinite Summer. Despite the strange mixture of measurement units in their equation (one would think the result would be in pages/day, but whatever), 75 pages a week does indeed sound like no sweat. And as luck would have it, I ran accross that site around the same time I was finishing up a book, and reading through some of the entries there finally made me interested enough to pick up the book and give it a shot.
I haven't read that much of it yet, but so far, I'm quite enjoying it. It's not nearly as pretentious as I feared, though it's obviously not beach or airport reading material either. It seems to rate somewhere between Cryptonomicon/Baroque Cycle and Gravity's Rainbow in terms of reading difficulty, though this may need some revision as I get further into the novel. When I read novels like this, there is a part of me that wants to stop everytime I find something I don't know about and figure that out before continuing. I read Gravity's Rainbow in that way, and there were times where it would take me an hour to read a single page. But after reading Jason Kottke's forward, I think I'm just going to relax this time around:
...you don’t need to be an expert in much of anything to read and enjoy this novel. It isn’t just for English majors or people who love fiction or tennis players or recovering drug addicts or those with astronomical IQs. Don’t sweat all the Hamlet stuff; you can worry about those references on the second time through if you actually like it enough to read it a second time. Leave your dictionary at home; let Wallace’s grammatical gymnastics and extensive vocabulary wash right over you; you’ll get the gist and the gist is more than enough. Is the novel postmodern or not? Who f’ing cares the story stands on its own.And thus I've begun my nfinite Summer...
Posted by Mark on June 24, 2009 at 05:42 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Crime Doesn't Pay
Over at the Whatever, China Miéville opines on the difficulties of ending a crime novel (or, at least, the whodunnit sub-genre):
Reviews of crime novels repeatedly refer to this or that book’s slightly disappointing conclusion. This is the case even where reviewers are otherwise hugely admiring. Sometimes you can almost sense their bewilderment when, looking closely at the way threads are wrapped up and plots and sub-plots knotted, they acknowledge that nothing could be done to improve an ending, that it works, that it is ‘fair’ (a very important quality for the crime aficionado - no last-minute suspects, no evidence the reader hasn’t seen), that it is well-written, that it surprises and yet that it disappoints.My first inclination is that this is a bit harsh. Surely there must be at least one crime novel that has managed to have a good ending (and sure enough, when I got to the end of the post, I found out that even Miéville acknowledges this). Statements like the above are just begging for dismissive responses. After all, the only thing one needs to disprove the statement is a single example. If I didn't know any better, I'd say that Miéville was a troll. In an effort to explain himself, he offers three examples, one of which is perhaps the most infamous crime solver of them all:
...crime novels are not what they say they are. They are not, for a start, realist novels. Holmes’s intoxicating and ludicrous taxonomies derived from scuffs on a walking stick are not acts of ratiocination but of bravura magical thinking. (Not that they, or other ‘deductions’, are necessarily ‘illogical’, or don’t make sense of the evidence, but that they precisely do so: they make it into sense. The sense follows the detection, in these stories, not, whatever the claim, vice versa.)From what I've read of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (which is not terribly much), I'd have to agree with Miéville here. Sherlock Holmes is an enjoyable character because of his immense intelligence and ridiculous powers of observation, but I always somehow feel cheated by this. There is a certain vicarious thrill when Holmes deducts the truth via details so small that no mere mortal would notice them, but at the same time, I always find myself annoyed when this happens because these details which Holmes uses in his logic were often not available to me as the reader. It's something of a cheat, what Miéville rightly calls "magical thinking." So yes, I did find myself let down by my first Sherlock Holmes story (and subsequent ones). Perhaps this is why the latest cinematic interpretation of Holmes makes him into an action hero and master of martial arts (Incidentally, I think I'd rather have the mystery with an impossible ending, thankyouverymuch. In reality, we'll probably get both.)
...detective novels are not novels of detection, still less of revelation, still less of solution. Those are all necessary, but not only are they insufficient, but they are in certain ways regrettable. These are novels of potentiality. Quantum narratives. Their power isn’t in their final acts, but in the profusion of superpositions before them, the could-bes, what-ifs and never-knows. Until that final chapter, each of those is as real and true as all the others, jostling realities all dreamed up by the crime, none trapped in vulgar facticity. That’s why the most important sentence in a murder mystery isn’t the one starting ‘The murderer is ’ - which no matter how necessary and fabulously executed is an act of unspeakable narrative winnowing - but is the snarled expostulation halfway through: ‘Everyone’s a suspect.’ Quite. When all those suspects become one certainty, it’s a collapse, and a let-down. How can it not be?This is perhaps where Miéville falters. The point he makes here (it's the journey, not the destination) is fine by itself I suppose, but it ultimately comes down to the fact that we're disappointed by the ending because, well, it ended. Something similar could be said for almost any story. How many times have you finished a book or a movie or any other form of storytelling and wanted more? How many times have you wanted to spend more time with your favorite characters? In all stories that end, there are possibilies that are constricted by the finale. One might even argue that this is the point of storytelling (and sure, there's room for subversion and deconstruction there too, but such techniques rely on the original tropes to work in the first place).
Unfortunately, our desire for more isn't always a good thing. This summer's blockbuster movie fare is a reasonable example of this. X-Men Origins: Wolverine revealed nothing of particular consequence. We'd have probably been better off not knowing the specifics of Logan's past. Vague insinuations of a mysterious past did a pretty fantastic job in the first two movies. Similarly, I had always loved the brief glimpses of the future shown in James Cameron's Terminator films and wanted to see more. So along comes Terminator Salvation, which adds nothing of particular consequence to the series. I haven't read it in a while, but Terminator: The Burning Earth did an excellent job telling pretty much the same story, so perhaps such efforts are not always doomed to failure. As Miéville notes, all of this may be due more to "authorial inadequacy" than anything else. It is quite easy to provoke interest in a plot or a mystery, but more difficult to solve it in an entertaining manner.
I think some authors tend to write themselves into a corner by exploring intriguing ideas. Ideas that are so intriguing that they don't want to give them up when they realize that there is no adequate solution. Stephen King seems like one of these people. Look no further than the third Dark Tower tome, which ended on a cliffhanger several years before the release of the next book (by which time he had concocted a not-so-convincing answer to the cliffhanger, then rushed on to tell a different story, perhaps hoping to distract us from his cliff-hanging shennanigans). Other stories I've read of his do similar things (I mean seriously, the hand of God came down and saved them should not be a valid option for saving your characters from an inescapable position).
Long form television series suffer from this as well. The X-Files and Battlestar Galactica are two that come to mind for me. Each has a pretty underwhelming ending (did X-Files ever even end? Does anyone care?), and I have to say that part of the reason I haven't progressed past the first season of Lost is that I'm pretty sure the ending will be pretty lame. And I have to admit that I'm less outraged about Firefly now that I realize that it probably would have gone on too long and ended poorly. Of course, like any true geek, I'm still outraged, just not as much as I used to be.
But I digress. I think what Miéville is really saying here is rather simple: it's hard to write a crime story with a good ending. This isn't exactly earth shattering news. It's hard to write a good ending to any story, let alone something like a crime novel (which I admit presents more of a challenge than some other genres). I don't think it's inaccurate to say that most attempts fail, just as Miéville claims. Sturgeon's Law seems particularly relevant here, but I don't think it's impossible to write a good ending to a crime novel. To his credit, Miéville does cite one example of a successful crime novel ending (alas, this book does not appear to be available, uh, anywhere). After all, while Sturgeon's Law states that 90% of everything is crap, there is still 10% of everything that is not! But what do I know, apparently I'm easy on people who write "bad" endings.
Posted by Mark on May 27, 2009 at 08:04 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, April 08, 2009
5 More Books I Want to Read
A couple of weeks ago I posted a list of 5 books I want to read (along with some other stuff I want to consume). In looking at my shelf, I noticed that there were 5 additional unread books that I want to read, so here goes:
Posted by Mark on April 08, 2009 at 08:13 PM .: link :.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
As usual, my media diet consists of way more content than I could ever hope to consume in a reasonable timeframe. I know people don't wait with baited breath to see what I think about some of this stuff (like they do with other folks) but I figured it might be worth throwing out a few lists of stuff I hope to be consuming in the coming months:
10 Already Released PS3 Games I Want to Play: An interesting thing about this generation of video game consoles is that even though the PS3 is universally considered to be the least successful console (due to poor sales which are usually attributed to the PS3's unusually high price tag coupled with an unforseen economic downturn), there is still a wealth of great games to be played. In previous generations, a console with the PS3's market penetration would probably be dead in the water, with less and less support as time goes on. While I am starting to see some grumblings about less third party support, etc..., there are still a whole slew of games out there that I want to play.
Posted by Mark on March 22, 2009 at 07:54 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, February 04, 2009
I've always considered myself something of a nerd, even back when being nerdy wasn't cool. Nowadays, everyone thinks they're a nerd. MGK recently noticed this:
Recently, I was surfing the net looking for lols, and came across a personal ad on Craigslist. The ad was not in and of itself hilarious, but one thing struck me. The writer described herself as “nerdy,” and as an example of her nerdiness, explained that she loved to watch Desperate Housewives.To address this situation, he has devised "a handy guide for people to define their own nerdiness, based on a number of nerdistic passions." I'm a little surprised at how poorly I did in some of these categories.
Posted by Mark on February 04, 2009 at 10:45 PM .: link :.
Sunday, December 07, 2008
I finished Neal Stephenson's latest novel, Anathem, a few weeks back. Overall, I enjoyed it heartily. I don't think it's his best work (a distinction that still belongs to Cryptonomicon or maybe Snow Crash), but it's way above anything I've read recently. It's a dense novel filled with interesting and complex ideas, but I had no problem keeping up once I got started. This is no small feat in a book that is around 900 pages long.
On the other hand, my somewhat recent discussion with Alex regarding the ills of Cryptonomicon has lead me to believe that perhaps the reason I like Neal Stephenson's novels so much is that he tunes into the same geeky frequencies I do. I think Shamus hit the nail on the head with this statement:
In fact, I have yet to introduce anyone to the book and have them like it. I’m slowly coming to the realization that Cryptonomicon is not a book for normal people. Flaws aside, there are wonderful parts to this book. The problem is, you have to really love math, history, and programming to derive enjoyment from them. You have to be odd in just the right way to love the book. Otherwise the thing is a bunch of wanking.Similarly, Anathem is not a book for normal people. If you have any interest in Philosophy and/or Quantum Physics, this is the book for you. Otherwise, you might find it a bit dry... but you don't need to be in love with those subjects to enjoy the book. You just need to find it interesting. I, for one, don't know much about Quantum Physics at all, and I haven't read any (real) Philosophy since college, and I didn't have any problems. In fact, I was pretty much glued to the book the whole time. One of the reasons I could tell I loved this book was that I wasn't really aware of what page I was on until I neared the end (at which point dealing with the physicality of the book itself make it pretty obvious how much was left).
Minor spoilers ahead, though I try to keep this to a minimum.
The story takes place on another planet named Arbre and is told in first person by a young man named Erasmus. Right away, this yields the interesting effect of negating the multi-threaded stories of most of Stephenson's other novels and providing a somewhat more linear progression of the story (at least, until you get towards the end of the novel, when the linearity becomes dubious... but I digress). Erasmus, who is called Raz by his friends, is an Avout - someone who has taken certain vows to concentrate on studies of science, history and philosophy. The Avout are cloistered in areas called Concents, which is kind of like a monastary except the focus of the Avout is centered around scholarship and not religion. Concents are isolated from the rest of the world (the area beyond a Concent's walls is referred to as Extramuros or the Saecular World), but there are certain periods in which the gates open and the Avout mix with the Saecular world (these periods are called Apert). Each concent is split up into smaller Maths, which are categorized by the number of years which lapse between each Apert.
Each type of Math has interesting characteristics. Unarian maths have Apert every year, and are apparently a common way to achieve higher education before getting a job in the Saecular world (kinda like college or maybe grad-school). Decenarian maths have Apert once every ten years. Raz and most of the characters in the story are "tenners." Centenarian maths have Apert once every century (and are referred to as hundreders) and Millenarian maths have Apert once every thousand years (and are called thousanders).
I suppose after reading the last two paragraphs, you'll notice that Stephenson has spent a fair amount of time devising new words and concepts for his alien planet. At first, this seems a bit odd and it might take some getting used to, but after the first 50-100 pages, it's pretty easy to keep up with all the new history and terminology. There's a glossary in the back of the book for reference, but I honestly didn't find that I needed it very often (at least, not the way I did while reading Dune, for instance). Much has been made of Stephenson's choice in this matter, as well as his choice to set the story on an alien planet that has a history that is roughly analogous to Earth's history. Indeed, it seems like there is a one-to-one relationship between many historical figures and concepts on Arbre and Earth. Take, for instance, Protas:
Protas, the greatest fid of Thelenes, had climbed to the top of a mountain near Ethras and looked down upon the plain that nourished the city-state and observed the shadows of the clouds, and compared their shapes. He had had his famous upsight that while the shapes of the shadows undeniably answered to those of the clouds, the latter were infinitely more complex and more perfectly realized than the former, which were distorted not only by the loss of a spatial dimension but also by being projected onto terrain that was of irregular shape. Hiking back down, he had extended that upsight by noting that the mountain seemed to have a different shape every time he turned round to look back at it, even though he knew it had one absolute form and that these seeming changes were mere figments of his shifting point of view. From there, he had moved on to his greatest upsight of all, which was that these two observations - the one concerning the clouds, the other concerning the mountain - were themselves both shadows cast into his mind by the same greater, unifying idea. (page 84)Protas is clearly an analog to Plato (and thus, Thelenes is similar to Socrates) and the concepts described above run parallel to Plato's concept of the Ideal (even going so far as to talk about shadows and the like, calling to mind Plato's metaphor of the cave). There are literally dozens of these types of relationships in the book. Adrakhones is analogous to Pythagoras, Gardan's Steelyard is similar to Occam's Razor, and so on. Personally, I rather enjoyed picking up on these similarities, but the referential nature of the setting might seem rather indulgent on Stephenson's part (at least, it might seem so to someone who hasn't read the book). I even speculated as much while I was reading the book, but as a reader noted in the comments to my post, that's not all there is to it. It turns out that Stephenson's choice to set the story on Arbre, a planet that has a history suspiciously similar to Earth, was not an indulgence at all. Indeed, it becomes clear later in the book that these similarities are actually vital to the story being told.
This sort of thing represents a sorta meta-theme of the book. Where Cryptonomicon is filled with little anecdotes and tangents that are somewhat related to the story, Anathem is tighter. Concepts that are seemingly tangential and irrelevant wind up playing an important role later in the book. Don't get me wrong, there are certainly a few tangents or anecdotes that are just that, but despite the 900+ page length of the book, Stephenson does a reasonably good job juggling ideas, most of which end up being important later in the book.
The first couple hundred pages of the novel take place within a Concent, and thus you get a pretty good idea of what life is like for the Avout. It's always been clear that Stephenson appreciates the opportunity to concentrate on something without having any interruptions. His old website quoted former Microsoft employee Linda Stone's concept of "continuous partial attention," which is something most people are familiar with these days. Cell phones, emails, Blackberries/iPhones, TV, and even the internet are all pieces of technology which allow us to split our attention and multi-task, but at the same time, such technology also serves to make it difficult to find a few uninterrupted hours with which to delve into something. Well, in a Concent, the Avout have no such distractions. They lead a somewhat regimented, simple life with few belongings and spend most of their time thinking, talking, building and writing. Much of their time is spent in Socratic dialogue with one another. At first, this seems rather odd, but it's clear that these people are first rate thinkers. And while philosophical discussions can sometimes be a bit dry, Stephenson does his best to liven up the proceedings. Take, for example, this dialogue between Raz and his mentor, Orolo:
"Describe worrying," he went on.And this goes on for a few pages as well. Incidentally, this is also an example of one of those things that seems like it's an irrelevant tangent, but returns later in the story.
So the Avout are a patient bunch, willing to put in hundreds of years of study to figure out something you or I might find trivial. I was reminded of the great unglamourous march of technology, only amplified. Take, for instance, these guys:
Bunjo was a Millenarian math built around an empty salt mine two miles underground. Its fraas and suurs worked in shifts, sitting in total darkness waiting to see flashes of light from a vast array of crystalline particle detectors. Every thousand years they published their results. During the First Millenium they were pretty sure they had seen flashes on three separate occasions, but since then they had come up empty. (page 262)As you might imagine, there is some tension between the Saecular world and the Avout. Indeed, there have been several "sacks" of the various Concents. This happens when the Saecular world gets freaked out by something the Avout are working on and attacks them. However, at the time of the novel, things are relatively calm. Total isolation is not possible, so there are Hierarchs from the Avout who keep in touch with the Saecular world, and thus when the Saecular world comes across a particularly daunting problem or crisis, they can call on the Avout to provide some experts for guidance. Anathem tells the story of one such problem (let's say they are faced with an external threat), and it leads to an unprecedented gathering of Avout outside of their concents.
I realize that I've spent almost 2000 words without describing the story in anything but a vague way, but I'm hesitant to give away too much of the story. However, I will mention that the book is not all philosophical dithering and epic worldbuilding. There are martial artists (who are Avout from a Concent known as the Ringing Vale, which just sounds right), cross-continental survival treks, and even some space travel. All of this is mixed together well, and I while I wouldn't characterise the novel as an action story, there's more than enough there to keep things moving. In fact, I don't want to give the impression that the story takes a back seat at any point during the novel. Most of the world building I've mentioned is something that comes through incidentally in the telling of the story. There are certainly "info-dumps" from time to time, but even those are generally told within the framework of the story.
There are quite a few characters in the novel (as you might expect, when you consider its length), but the main ones are reasonably well defined and interesting. Erasmus turns out to be a typical Stephensonian character - a very smart man who is constantly thrust into feuds between geniuses (i.e. a Randy/Daniel Waterhouse type). As such, he is a likeable fellow who is easy to relate to and empathize with. He has several Avout friends, each of whom plays an important role in the story, despite being separated from time to time. There's even a bit of a romance between Raz and one of the other Avout, though this does proceed somewhat unconventionally. During the course of the story, Raz even makes some Extramuros friends. One being his sister Cord, who seems to be rather bright, especially when it comes to mechanics. Another is Sammann, who is an Ita (basically a tecno-nerd who is always connected to networks, etc...). Raz's mentor Orolo has been in the Concent for much longer than Raz, and is thus always ten steps ahead of Raz (he's the one who brought up the nerve-gas-farting pink dragons above).
Another character who doesn't make an appearance until later on in the story is Fraa Jad. He's a Millenarian, so if Orolo is always ten steps ahead, Jad is probably a thousand steps ahead. He has a habit of biding his time and dropping a philosophical bomb into a conversation, like this:
Fraa Jad threw his napkin on the table and said: "Consciousness amplifies the weak signals that, like cobwebs spun between trees, web Narratives together. Moreover, it amplifies them selectively and in that way creates feedback loops that steer the Narratives." (page 701)If that doesn't make a lot of sense, that's because it doesn't. In the book, the characters surrounding Jad spend a few pages trying to unpack what was said there. That might seem a bit tedious, but it's actually kinda funny when he does stuff like that, and his ideas actually are driving the plot forward, in a way. One thing Stephenson doesn't spend much time discussing is the details of how the Millenarians continue to exist. He doesn't explicitely come out and say it, but the people on Arbre seem to have life spans similar to humans (perhaps a little longer), so it's a little unclear how things like Millenarian Maths can exist. He does mention that thousanders have managed to survive longer than others, but it's not clear how or why. If one were so inclined, they could perhaps draw a parallel between the Thousanders in Anathem and the Eruditorium in Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle. Indeed, Enoch Root would probably fit right in at a Millenarian Math... but I'm pretty sure I'm just reading way too much into this and that Stephenson wasn't intentionally trying to draw such a parallel. It's still an interesting thought though.
Overall, Stephenson has created and sustained a detailed world, and he has done so primarily through telling the story. Indeed, I'm only really touching the surface of what he's created here, and honestly, so is he. It's clear that Stephenson could easily have made this into another 3000 page Baroque Cycle style trilogy, delving into the details of the history and culture of Arbre, but despite the long length of the novel, he does keep things relatively tight. The ending of the novel probably won't do much to convince those who don't like his endings that he's turned a new leaf, but I enjoyed it and thought it ranked well within his previous books. There are some who will consider the quasi-loose-ends in the story to be frustrating, but I thought it actually worked out well and was internally consistent with the rest of the story (it's hard to describe this without going into too much detail). In the end, this is Stephenson's best work since Cryptonomicon and the best book I've read in years. It will probably be enjoyed by anyone who is already a Stephenson fan. Otherwise, I'm positive that there are people out there who are just the right kind of weird that would really enjoy this book. I expect that anyone who is deeply interested in Philosophy or Quantum Physics would have a ball. Personally, I'm not too experienced in either realm, but I still enjoyed the book immensely. Here's to hoping we don't have to wait another 4 years for a new Stephenson novel...
Posted by Mark on December 07, 2008 at 08:39 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
SF and Real Life Space Exploration
This summer, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin criticized fantastical Science Fiction TV shows and movies, claiming that they are responsible for a lack of interest in real space exploration.
"I blame the fantastic and unbelievable shows about space flight and rocket ships that are on today," Aldrin said in an interview during an ice cream party held by the National Geographic Channel at the Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., this week. "All the shows where they beam people around and things like that have made young people think that that is what the space program should be doing. It's not realistic."This caused a bit of a stir this summer and just recently, SF Signal posted a series of responses by popular SF authors. Several responses are worthy of note. First, let's get John Scalzi's response out of the way:
Absolutely. This also explains why the unrealistic science in CSI has completely killed interest in forensic pathology. And why the upcoming show Buzz, The Cranky Old Astronaut What Shakes His Fist at the Kids These Days will ruin the joy of illicitly playing on Aldrin's lawn for generations to come.Heh. Ok, so most of them take a more serious approach to the material. Ultimately, most of the responses boil down to "He kinda has a point, but not really." But there are some good points made in the process. First, Jack McDevitt actually agrees with Aldrin... but then he also claims that without SF, we'd never have had interest in the first place (and presumably, Aldrin thus wouldn't have had the chance to go gallavanting around the moon). J. Michael Straczynski makes the obvious point:
The only thing wrong with Buzz Aldrin's statement is that it's not true.Mike Brotherton makes some excellent points and also has a few good suggestions:
Real space exploration has been slow, expensive, and dangerous, a far cry from rugged, unintellectual heroes and their droids popping into hyperspace, or taking a quick excursion to blow up an Earth-destined asteroid the size of Texas.Personally, my first thought was that Aldrin was nuts. Then I realized that he only really mentioned TV and movies... and when I really thought about it, it began to make a little more sense. I don't believe for a second that fantastical TV shows like Star Trek actively discourage people because they feature FTL drives and transporters, but at the same time I can't think of many SF shows or movies that really do focus on the realities of space travel. In general, true hard science fiction is poorly represented in TV and film. In books, it's a different story. They tend to also contain McGuffins like FTL drives, but they try to minimize that in favor of scientific rigor. But books seem to work better at that than visual mediums. As Mike Brotherton noted above, space travel is slow, expensive, and dangerous. The "dangerous" part would probably make for good TV, but the tedious, slow and expensive parts probably don't. The fact is that realistic space travel isn't anywhere near as glamorous as it sounds at first... a fact that is completely antithetical to TV and movies. That doesn't mean that great stories can't be told in a realistic and engaging fashion, and I would gladly watch a show like that if it were aired, but I'm not holding my breath. Would such a show really spark that much interest in the space program? I'm not sure. In general, I tend to believe that art reflects the culture it was created in... and that this hypothetical hard SF show we're talking about would only really become popular in a society that was already interested in space travel. Fortunately, I don't think it's that hard of a sell. It may not be as glamorous as it seems at first, but that's a problem all technological fields face... and technological advances don't seem to be slowing either...
Posted by Mark on November 19, 2008 at 06:36 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
Anathem is Referential
I am surprisingly only about halfway through Neal Stephenson's new novel, Anathem. Of course, this has nothing to do with the book itself and is more a result of a certain baseball team's improbable World Series win (Go Phils!), a particularly eventful election season and, of course, watching ridiculous amounts of horror films in preparation for Halloween. Also, since Stephenson only tends to put out books at a rate of about once every 3-4 years, I figure it's a good thing to savor this one. So far, it's excellent, and I can't wait to see where it's going.
There are a couple of interesting questions that keep popping into my head though, one of which has to do with the referential nature of the setting. The story takes place on an alien planet named Arbre. This planet is remarkably similar to Earth in many ways. The civilization on Arbre is a few thousand years beyond where we are, but again, there are many parallels between Arbre's history and Earth's history. Since it's an alien planet, there are different names for lots of things or historical figures, but it's often very clear who has inspired various ideas in the book. The book actually has a glossary in the back and peppers various dictionary definitions throughout the book to keep the reader up to speed on various differences between the planets. This can be a bit tricky at first, but after the initial shock, I realized that it was pretty easy to follow and even fun to puzzle out the various connections (in other words, I don't think the glossary is as necessary in Anathem as it is in a book like Frank Herbert's Dune, where I found it necessary to frequently reference the glossary). However, I can't help but wonder, why place the story on an alien planet at all? Why not just set it far enough into the future that you can still hint at the various historical connections and ideas without having to specifically call them out? Perhaps there's more to it than meets the eye. As I've mentioned in an earlier entry about Anathem, decoding all the references is part of the fun of SF.
And indeed, I do get a kick out of reading Stephenson's description of Hemn Space and thinking to myself, that sounds an awful lot like a Hilbert Space! It was oddly satisfying to recognize some obscure reference like Project Orion just from the description of a cosmological observation made by some of the characters. And there are a ton of these: Protas is a philosopher who is clearly supposed to be analogous to Plato, Adrakhones is like Pythagoras, Gardan's Steelyard is similar to Occam's Razor, and so on. When I did a quick search, I found that there were tons of other references that I didn't even pick up on... One of my favorite references is actually rather trivial, but it makes sense in terms of the story and it gives us SF nerds something to geek out on. (from page 47 of my edition):
"...what is the origin of the Doxan Iconography?"The series is obviously an analog to Star Trek and Dox is clearly a reference to Spock. If I had more than 5 readers, there'd probably be one who was really into Star Trek and they'd probably be fuming right now because the description above doesn't match exactly with the real Star Trek (I mean, duh, the Enterprise's mission was to explore space, not to attack an alien race!). Perhaps Stephenson set the story on Arbre so that he could avoid such nitpicks and get people to focus on the story. Indeed, this wouldn't be the first time he sought to avoid the nitpicking masses. In Cryptonomicon, Stephenson's characters ran around using computers with the Finux operating system, an obvious reference to Linux. Stephenson has an FAQ where he explains why he did this:
> Neal, in Cryptonomicon why did you call Windows and MacOS bySo perhaps setting the story on Arbre just affords Stephenson the creative freedom to tell the story as he sees fit, instead of having to shoehorn everything into Earth history and worry about people missing the forest for the trees. In the process, the story becomes more cognitively engaging (in the way most referential art is) because we're constantly drawing parallels to Earth's history.
As previously mentioned, this is a somewhat common feature of the science fiction and fantasy genres. It's one of the reasons SF/F fans enjoy these books so much... Alas, it's probably also why true SF doesn't get much of a mainstream following, as I can't imagine this sort of thing is for everybody. In any case, I'm really enjoying Anathem, and now that my various distractions have calmed down a bit, I'll probably tear through the rest of the book relatively quickly.
Posted by Mark on November 05, 2008 at 08:45 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Season 7 of Firefly
One of the greatest SF television series of recent years was Firefly. Of course, it never made it past 14 episodes (actually, only 11 were aired). This is what makes this mock-review of the first episode of Season 7 of Firefly hilarious.
The end is nigh. The last season of Firefly started last night and if the season premiere is any indication, it comes a season too late. ...There's lot's more, but I can't help but think how uninspired the show sounds in its 7th season. The 14 episodes of the show that were produced were great, and so it's natural to lament that we'll never get closure to a lot of the plot threads... but at this point, I'm almost glad it didn't go much beyond those 14 episodes. I enjoyed Serenity a lot, but there was something off about it. It was too rushed, too compressed. Whedon is on record as saying that the events of the movie correspond roughly to his plan for the entire second season. When I saw Serenity, I found some pieces of it lacking... the government conspiracy that drives the plot is cliched, some of the characters don't get much to do, and other characters are given the prize of an arbitrary and unceremonious death. As an movie that is independent of the series, it's great, and it's one I rewatch relatively often. Would it have worked if the story had been spread out across a season? That is the assumption most seem to make, but honestly, I don't know. What I do know is that I don't have to worry about it anymore, and that might actually be a good thing. It's a tragedy that the series was torpedoed by Fox, who did a lot to sabotage the series, but at the same time, I'm a little relieved that it didn't live long enough for Whedon to torpedo it himself.
Thanks to Jonathan Last for the link, and he correctly notes that the comments, where people take the gag and run with it, are hilarious as well. For instance, this one:
The third season kicked a@@! (They won three Emmys, for frak's sake! And I STILL say Joss was screwed over - Abrams is good, but "Lost" was [and STILL IS] just a 'gimmick' show!) But I thought Mal being on the other size of the law let them explore some "gray zones" of morality - the REAL cause of Bowden's Malady (with the great Gregg Henry reprising his role as Sheriff Bourne) - And Badger revealed as a paid snitch for Blue Sun - Or what about the two-parter where the crew finally gets their (legal!) revenge on Niska? And who didn't shed a tear over Zoe's pregnancy? Okay, Wash going undercover with the carnival was just a rip-off of "The Trouble With Tribbles" -except with baby geese - but it WAS funny! And speaking of funny, what about the episode with Jayne's mother and four sisters get quarantined aboard Serenity for a month? I usually don't care for Melanie Griffith, but I thought she was perfectly cast here...I could go on, but I urge everybody to go back and take another look at Season #3!!Heh.
Posted by Mark on October 15, 2008 at 08:35 PM .: link :.
Sunday, September 07, 2008
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.
Posted by Mark on September 03, 2008 at 08:11 PM .: link :.
Sunday, August 31, 2008
Words & Worlds
There's an interesting (but woefully short) interview with Neal Stephenson on the Sci Fi Wire. In it, he talks about his decision to include an introduction and glossary of terms (an excerpt of which is available) in his new novel:
People who do read science fiction and fantasy have developed a skill set that other people don't necessarily have. They can pick up a book and begin reading it, and it will have all of these words that they have not seen before and names that they are not familiar with, and it's set in a world whose geography they don't know and whose customs they don't know--and it can be a bit hard to follow at first, but those kinds of people know that if they just keep reading and are patient, over time all of that will be explained, and they will be able to piece it together in their heads. And doing that is actually part of the pleasure of reading such a book for a fantasy or science fiction fan.This instantly reminded me of Eric Raymond's excellent essay, SF Words and Prototype Worlds, in which he notes the way that SF can use a single word to embed broad and far-reaching implications into a story.
In looking at an SF-jargon term like, say, "groundcar", or "warp drive" there is a spectrum of increasingly sophisticated possible decodings. The most naive is to see a meaningless, uninterpretable wordlike noise and stop there.Fascinating stuff. I don't have much to add, except that September 9 can't get here fast enough...
Posted by Mark on August 31, 2008 at 08:32 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
SF Book Review, Part 2
The second in a series of short, capsule reviews of SF books I've read recently. Part 1 covered several Heinlein Juveniles and an Arthur C. Clarke novel. This part will cover a miscellaneous selection of old and new novels:
Posted by Mark on August 27, 2008 at 12:04 AM .: link :.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
SF Book Review, Part 1: The Heinlein Juvenile Edition
In case you can't tell from my recent posting history, I've been reading a lot of science fiction lately. I've always had an affinity for the genre, but I came to realize recently that I've only really explored a rather small portion of what's out there. One area I was notably deficient on was the Heinlein juveniles, a subgenre that seems to be almost universally revered but which I had largely neglected. I'd read several of his later novels (including Starship Troopers, which seems to be the turning point for when Heinlein started writing for adults), but his juveniles seem to hold a special place in SF history, so I wanted to explore them a bit. In a discussion at the 4th Kingdom, I got several recommendations for Heinlein juveniles along with some others. I've also been looking at various best-of lists to get some ideas about the history and best examples of SF. As such, I still have lots of books I want to work through, but I figured what I've covered in the last few months is worth a recap. I have 10 books I want to cover, but today we'll only take the first 5 (most of which are Heinlein juveniles). The next 5 will be posted on Wednesday.
Posted by Mark on August 24, 2008 at 07:32 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Predictions and Information Overload
I'm currently reading Arthur C. Clarke's novel, Childhood's End, and I found this passage funny:
...there are too many distractions and entertainments. Do you realize that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels? If you went without sleep and did nothing else, you could follow less than a twentieth of the entertainment that’s available at the turn of a switch! No wonder people are becoming passive sponges — absorbing but never creating. Did you know that the average viewing time per person is now three hours a day? Soon people won’t be living their own lives any more. It will be a full-time job keeping up with the various family serials on TV!I don't think Clarke was really attempting to make a firm prediction in this statement (which is essentially made in passing), but it's amusing to think how much he got right and how much he got wrong. Considering that he was writing this book in the early 1950s, he actually did make a pretty decent prediction when it came to average viewing time per person. In the US, the number is more like 4-5 hours a day (I'm betting that this will be in decline, especially in this year of the WGA strike), but worldwide, it's probably down around 3 hours a day. On the other hand, Clarke drastically underestimated the amount of content made available and also the effect of so much content.
The United States alone has 2,218 stations, which is over 4 times as many stations as Clarke had predicted hours. If we assume each station only broadcasts for an average of 16 hours a day, that works out to be over 35,000 hours of programming (70 times as much as Clarke had predicted for both TV and radio). And this doesn't even count things like On Demand, DVDs, and newer entertainment mediums like the Internet (which includes stuff like You Tube and Podcasts,etc... in addition to the standard textual data) and Video Games.
Which brings me to the other interesting thing about Clarke's prediction. He seemed to think that when that much entertainment became readily available, we would become "passive sponges — absorbing but never creating." But in today's world, the opposite seems true. Indeed, content creation seems to be accelerating. To be sure, Clarke was right in the general sense that massive amounts of data do indeed come with problems of their own. Clarke is certainly right to note that you can only really experience a tiny fraction of what's out there at any given time, and this can be an issue. Ironically, a google search for "Information Overload" yields 2,150,000 results, which is as good an example as any. On a personal level, I don't think this goes as far as, say, Nicholas Carr seems to think, and as long as we find ways around the mammoth amounts of data we're all expected to assimilate on a daily basis (stuff like self-censorship seems to help), we should be fine.
Posted by Mark on July 30, 2008 at 07:06 PM .: link :.
Sunday, July 13, 2008
More on Genres
In Wednesday's post, I mused a bit on genres (mostly going along with Neal Stephenson's talk.) Well, in the comments, Roy was having none of that. And he has a point. When I started thinking about it, trying to define genres or even fiction in general is difficult. I was reminded of the opening paragraphs of Clive Barker's novel, Imajica:
It was the pivotal teaching of Pluthero Quexos, the most celebrated dramatist of the Second Dominion, that in any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme, there was only ever room for three players. Between warring kings, a peacemaker; between adoring spouses, a seducer or a child. Between twins, the spirit of the womb. Between lovers, Death. Greater numbers might drift through the drama, of course -- thousands in fact -- but they could only ever be phantoms, agents, or, on rare occasions, reflections of the three real and self-willed beings who stood at the center. And even this essential trio would not remain intact; or so he taught. It would steadily diminish as the story unfolded, three becoming two, two becoming one, until the stage was left deserted.I'm sure this philosophy isn't anything new (sometimes I like to quote fiction to make a point), but what struck me about it is the way other writers immediately challenged the doctrine. As soon as Pluthero Quexos laid out his grand observation, I'm sure a hundred writers immediately set themselves a task to subvert it. Quexos calls them cheats, but are they? I'd say they probably aren't. The problem is that by talking about genres or even fiction in general, we're trying to put a box around it. However, anytime we put a box around something, especially something as subjective as fiction, it's tempting to think outside the box. Actually, it's fun to think outside the box.
I think this is why I like genre fiction so much. The very premise of a genre is to limit the story to some series of conventions... but the definition of what constitutes any specific genre is blurry, and writers like to play within that gray area. It's fun. A while ago, I wrote about the definition of a weblog, and I basically thought about weblogs as a genre:
A genre is typically defined as a category of artistic expression marked by a distinctive style, form, or content. However, anyone who is familiar with genre film or literature knows that there are plenty of movies or books that are difficult to categorize. As such, specific genres such as horror, sci-fi, or comedy are actually quite inclusive. Some genres, Drama in particular, are incredibly broad and are often accompanied by the conventions of other genres (we call such pieces "cross-genre," though I think you could argue that almost everything incorporates "Drama"). The point here is that there is often a blurry line between what constitutes one genre from another.A lot of fiction does this even within itself. It sets up a paradigm, and then sets out to subvert it somehow. A great example of this is Isaac Asimov's robot stories. In those stories, Asimov laid out the now infamous Three Laws of Robotics:
In any case, I like talking about genres, even though it's probably not possible to be definitive. It's fun anyway, and subverting the genre is definitely a part of that...
Posted by Mark on July 13, 2008 at 07:56 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Anathem Music Update
Apparently the advanced reader copies of Neal Stephenson’s new novel Anathem are starting to arrive... along with an unexpected musical accompaniment in the form of a CD. According to Al Billings:
There is a note with it stating that “In order to conform to the practices of the avout, this disc contains music composed for and performed by voices alone.”Interesting. I wonder if this is something that will come with the book once it is released... or if it's just an added bonus for those lucky enough to be selected for an early reviewer book like Al. In any case, Cory Doctorow notes that the music was created by Dave Stutz, a retired Microsoft employee who apparently advocated open source software, but now owns a winery and makes strange music.
And so this Anathem thing gets more and more interesting. September 9 can't get here fast enough! [Thanks to Tombstone for the links]
Posted by Mark on June 25, 2008 at 08:30 PM .: link :.
Sunday, March 23, 2008
I recently finished watching both seasons of Dexter. The series has a fascinating premise: the titular hero, Dexter Morgan, is a forensic analyst (he's a "blood spatter expert") for the Miami police by day, but a serial killer by night. He operates by a "code," only murdering other murderers (usually ones who've beaten the system). The most interesting thing about Dexter's code is the implication that he does not follow the code out of some sort of dedication to morality or justice. He knows what he does is evil, but he follows his code because it's the most constructive way to channel his aggression. Of course, the code is not perfect, and a big part of the series is how the code shapes him and how he, in turn, shapes it. To be honest, watching the series is a little odd and disturbing when you realize that you're essentially rooting for a serial killer (an affable and charming one, to be sure, but that's part of why it's disturbing). I started to think about this a bit, and several other examples of similar characters came to mind. There's a lot more to the series, but I don't want to ruin it with a spoiler-laden discussion here. Instead, I want to talk about vigilantes.
Despite the lack of concern for justice (or perhaps because of that), Dexter is essentially a vigilante... someone who takes the law into his own hands. There is, of course, a long history of vigilantism, in both real life and art. Indeed, many classic instances happened long before the word vigilante was coined - for example, Robin Hood. He stole from the rich to give to the poor, and was immortalized as a folk hero whose tales are still told to this day. I think there is a certain cultural fascination with vigilantes, especially vigilantes in art.
Take superheroes, most of whom are technically vigilantes. Sure, many stand for all that is good in the world and often cite truth and justice as motivation, but the evolution of comic books shows something interesting. I haven't read a whole lot of comic books (especially of the superhero kind), but the impression I get is that when the craze started in the 1930s, it was all about heroics and people serving the common good. There was also a darker edge to some of them, and that edge has grown as time progressed. Batman is probably the most relevant to this discussion, as he shares a complicated relationship with the police and a certain above-the-law attitude towards solving crimes. Interestingly, the Batman of the 1930s was probably a darker, more violent superhero than he was in the 1940s, when one editor issued a decree that the character could no longer kill or use a gun. As such, the postwar Batman became more of an upstanding citizen, and the stories took on a lighter tone (definitely an understandable direction, considering what the world had been through). I'm sure I'm butchering the Batman chronology here, but the next sigificant touchstone for Batman came in 1986, with the publication of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Written and drawn by Frank Miller, the series reintroduced Batman as a dark, brooding character with complex psychological issues. A huge success, this series ushered in a new era of "grim and gritty" superheros that still holds today.
In general, our superheroes have become much more conflicted. Many (like Batman) tackle the vigilante aspect head on, and if you look at something like Watchmen (or The Incredibles, if you want a lighter version), you can see a shift in the way such stories are told. I'm sure there are literally hundreds of other examples in the comic book world, but I want to shift gears for a moment and examine another cultural icon that Dexter reminded me of: Dirty Harry.
Inspector Harry Callahan is an incredibly popular character, but apparently not with critics:
Critics have rarely cracked the whip harder than on the Dirty Harry film series, which follows the exploits of a trigger-happy San Francisco cop named Harry Callahan and his junior partners, usually not long for this world. On its release in 1971, Dirty Harry was trounced as 'fascist medievalism' by the potentate of the haut monde critic set, Pauline Kael, as well as aspiring Kaels like young Roger Ebert. Especially irksome to the criterati was a key moment in the film when Inspector Callahan, on the trail of an elusive serial sniper, is reprimanded by his superiors for not taking into account the suspect's Miranda rights. Callahan replies, through clenched teeth, "Well, I'm all broken up about that man's rights." Take that, Miranda.I should say that critics often give the film (at least, the first one) generally good overall marks, praising its "suspense craftsmanship" or calling it "a very good example of the cops-and-killers genre." But I'm fascinated by all the talk of fascism. Despite working within the system, Dirty Harry indeed does take the law into his own hands, and in doing so he ignores many of our treasured Constitutional freedoms. And yet we all cheer him on, just as we cheer Batman and Dexter.
Why are these characters so popular? Why do we cheer such characters on even when we know what they're doing is ultimately wrong? I think it comes down to desire. We all desire justice. We want to see wrongs being made right, yet every day we can turn on the TV and watch non-stop failures of our system, whether it be rampant crime or a criminal going free or any other number of indignities. Now, I'm not an expert, but I don't think our society today is much worse off than it was, say, a hundred years ago (In fact, I think we're significantly better off, but that's another discussion). The big difference is that information is disseminated more widely and quickly, and dramatic failures of the system are attention grabbing, so that's what we get. What's more, these stories tend to focus on the most dramatic, most obscene examples. It's natural for people to feel helpless in the face of such news, and I think that's why everyone tends to embrace vigilante stories (note that people don't generally embrace actual real-life vigilantes - that's important, and we'll get to that later). Such stories serve many purposes. They allow us to cope with life's tragedies, internalize them and in some way comfort us, but as a deeper message, they also emphasize that the world is not perfect, and that we'll probably never solve the problem of crime. In some ways, they act as a critique of our system, pointing out it's imperfections and thereby making sure we don't become complacent in the ever-changing fight against crime.
Of course, there is a danger to this way of thinking, which is why critics like Pauline Kael get all huffy when they watch something like Dirty Harry. We don't want to live in a police state, and to be honest, a real cop who acted like Dirty Harry would probably be an awful cop. Films like that deal in extremes because they're trying to make a point, and it's easy to misinterpret such films. I doubt people would really accept a cop like Dirty Harry. Sure, some folks might applaud his handling of the Scorpio case that the film documents (audiences certainly did!), but police officers don't handle a single case in the course of their career, and most cases aren't that black and white either. Dirty Harry would probably be fired out here in the real world. Ultimately, while we revel in such entertainment, we don't actually want real life to imitate art in this case. However, that doesn't mean we enjoy hearing about a vicious drug dealer going free because the rules of evidence were not followed to the letter. I think deep down, people understand that concepts like the rules of evidence are important, but they can also be extremely frustrating. This is why we have conflicting emotions when we watch the last scene in Dirty Harry, in which he takes off his police badge and throws it into the river.
I think this is a large part of why vigilante stories have evolved. Comic book heroes like Batman have become more conflicted, and newer comic books often deal with the repercussions of vigilatism. The Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force, was apparently made as a direct answer to the critics of Dirty Harry who thought that film was openly advocating law-sanctioned vigilantism. In Magnum Force, the villains are vigilante cops. Then you have modern day vigilantes like Dexter, which pumps audiences full of conflicting emotions. I like this guy, but he's a serial killer. He's stopping other killers, but he's doing so in such a disturbing way.
Are vigilante stories fascist fantasies? Perhaps, but fantasies aren't real. They're used to illustrate something, and in the case of vigilante fantasies, they illustrate a desire for justice. The existence of a show like Dexter will repulse some people and that's certainly an understandable reaction. In fact, I think that's exactly what the show's creators want to do. They're walking the line between satisfying the desire for justice while continually noting that Dexter is not a good person. Ironically, what would repulse me more would be the complete absence of stories like Dexter, because the only way such a thing could happen would be if everyone thought our society was perfect. Perhaps someday concepts like justice and crime will be irrelevant, but that day ain't coming soon, and until it does, we'll need such stories, if only to remind us that we don't live in a perfect world.
Posted by Mark on March 23, 2008 at 07:16 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, February 06, 2008
Via Author, I found this question posed by Iwa ni Hana:
Why would fans want to experience / creators want to tell more or less the same story with more or less the same characters in different formats, be it manga, TVA, OVA, feature film, CD drama, novel, live action movie or live-action TV series?The structure of the question pretty much demands a two part answer (one for fans and one for creators), and I'll tack on some tangents while I'm at it.
I imagine that the creators question has the easier answer, though there are really several possible reasons why a creator would want to adapt their work to other mediums. Perhaps the creator always wanted to make a movie, but lacked the resources and expertise to create one, so they started with a comic book/manga/web comic instead (Author notes this in his post - "formats form a vague hierarchy of expense, with cheaper works (such as manga) forming the base and being adopted into more expensive arts."). Another big reason could be because the creator wants their story to reach a wider audience. A corollary to that would be that the creator would assent to an adaptation because they were paid well, and if the adaptation is successful, they may be able to achieve a higher degree of independence or creative freedom in their future work. Note that these aren't necessarily good things, but high-cost mediums like film require creators to make a name for themselves before studios will sign off on the budget for a dream project.
This probably isn't that common a scenario, but it's definitely possible, and the history of film shows great filmmakers "slumming it" before they go on to make their classics. Take Stanley Kubrick. He got his start as a photographer for Look magazine. He once did a photo-essay on a boxer named Walter Cartier, which he later adapted into an independently financed short-subject documentary called Day of the Fight. He parlayed that minor success into a few more short documentaries and then into narrative fiction films, doing kinda standard noir thrillers like Killer's Kiss and The Killing. These are fine films, and better than most of their contemporaries, but Kubrick was also paying his dues in the film industry, which is something he continued to do up until Spartacus, after which his career really took off. He had proven himself a bankable commodity. A filmmaker popular with the critics and with audiences (a rarity, to be sure). Again, this probably isn't that true of all artists who do (or allow) adaptations of their own work, but it seems likely that at least some creators would pursue other mediums so that they can tell the stories they want to tell.
The fan's perspective is a little more complicated. Why would you want to watch what basically amounts to the same story you just read? I'm honestly not sure. Personally, there are definitely cases where a book is adapted into a movie and I dread watching the movie (said dread is often justified). But there are a few reasons this could happen. First, it could be a way to introduce a friend to one of your favorite authors or books without nagging them to read the books. Second, there is often a chance, however slim, that the adaptation will add something new and interesting to the source material. Most adaptations are, by necessity, not the exact same story. In the rare instances where they are, they generally turn out a little bland (I actually enjoyed the first two Harry Potter films, but they're also bland and a little boring if you've read the books). Indeed, many of the best adaptations are significantly different than their source material. Not to keep using Kubrick as an example, but The Shining is a wonderful example of a movie that only bears a superficial resemblance to the book, and yet is quite entertaining. It's also one of the few examples of an adaptation that has carved out it's own reputation without affecting the reputation of the source material. In my mind, both the book and movie are classics, but for different reasons. This actually makes sense, as different mediums use different "language" (for lack of a better term) for telling a story. I think this is part of why authors who write the screenplays for movie adaptations of their work often produce disappointing results. For example, take any number of Stephen King adaptations where he's written the script, including even The Shining mini-series, which pales in comparison to Kubrick's film.
This brings up an interesting question about movies that end up being better than their source material. Of course, most often, it's the other way around, but in some instances, lightning strikes. Unfortunately, I haven't read many of the typical examples, but from what I can see, both Jaws and The Godfather took rather conventional source material and elevated them into classics. One I have read that's a better movie is The Bourne Identity. It's not an utterly brilliant movie, but I thought the book was poorly written (though I think I like the story better). Other books I've read that have at least comparable or debatably good adapatations are Fight Club and The Exorcist.
All of which makes me wonder why people don't adapt (or remake) bad stories that have a neat idea. The All Movie Talk podcast had an interesting list of movies that should be remade, and I think it's an interesting concept.
But I digress. Another reason fans might want to see an adaptation is that they're just so enamored with the characters or the story that they revel in any chance to revisit them. As Author notes, other mediums may add something of value to the original work, even if the adaptation is not as good as the original.
So to recap, there are lots of reasons! Personally, I find the most compelling to be spreading the story around to a wider audience, though I do have a soft spot for wanting something new and exciting from an adaptation. Then, of course, you also get totally off the wall stuff like the movie Adaptation, which is based on an oddly recursive story: The screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, was hired to write an adaptation of Susan Orlean's novel The Orchid Thief, but he found the task to be quite difficult and could not seem to make any progress. So instead of actually writing the adaptation, he writes a script about how he is having trouble writing the adaptation. (A quick tangent: Ironically, the one story that Stephen King has sworn not to sell the film rights for is the Dark Tower series, in which King basically pulls the Adaptation trick.) In the end, I think adaptations are good things, even if many of them are of dubious quality.
Posted by Mark on February 06, 2008 at 07:50 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Ok, I'm slacking. The top 10 movies of 2007 will be posted this Sunday. In the mean time, I leave you with this anti-terrorism suggestion from Charlie Stross (and yes, I'm posting this a few months late, but it's still funny):
The solution to protecting the London Underground from terrorist suicide bombers can be summed up in one word: Daleks. One Dalek per tube platform, behind a door at the end. Fit them with cameras and remote controls and run them from Ken Livingstone's office. Any sign of terrorism on the platform? Whoosh! The doors open and the Dalek comes out, shrieking "exterminate!" in a demented rasp reminiscent of Michael Howard during his tenure as Home Secretary, only less merciful.Heh.
Posted by Mark on January 23, 2008 at 08:13 PM .: link :.
Friday, November 02, 2007
Friday is List Day: Book List Meme
Looks like there's a book meme making the rounds:
Read it? Bold it.
Start it, but didn't finish it? Italicize it.
As you can see, there are few books that I've started and not finished (and the ones I have were only started due to some sort of school assignment that didn't require a complete reading). I also don't hate many of the books, but perhaps that's just because I think hate is a pretty strong word. (I have no idea where this list of books came from - it's a mildly ecclectic mix of old and new. I guess Sara just made it up? Strange.)
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Crime and Punishment
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Life of Pi: A Novel
The Name of the Rose
Pride and Prejudice
A Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies
War and Peace
The Time Traveller's Wife
The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Reading Lolita in Tehran
Memoirs of a Geisha
Wicked : The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
The Canterbury Tales
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Love in the Time of Cholera
Brave New World
The Count of Monte Cristo
A Clockwork Orange
The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible
The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
To the Lighthouse
Tess of the Dubervilles
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Sound and the Fury
A People's History of the United States : 1492-Present
The God of Small Things
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake: A Novel
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
In Cold Blood
The Three Musketeers
And Roy's additions:
For Whom the Bell Tolls
War of the Worlds
The Invisible Man
Old Man and the Sea
Alice in Wonderland
Wizard of Oz
Return to Oz
The Chronicles of Narnia
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret
Lord of the Flies
The Confessions of Nat Turner
As I Lay Dying
The Sound and the Fury
The Great Gatsby
The Giving Tree
Good Night Moon
A Wrinkle in Time
I suppose I could add some books, but there's no real limit here and there doesn't seem to be any sort of theme, so I'll just leave it be.
Posted by Mark on November 02, 2007 at 08:56 PM .: link :.
Sunday, October 14, 2007
4 Weeks of Halloween: Week 2
This week's lineup features all British made horror:
Posted by Mark on October 14, 2007 at 08:19 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
This is a couple weeks old, but I've been busy and haven't gotten to post it. Someone has posted three detailed maps of Lovecraftian locales: Arkham, Innsmouth and Kingsport. The post is in French, but the maps are right there, and they're great. The best one is Innsmouth, which almost looks like a member of the Lovecraftian Bestiary in itself.
Awesome. I'll have to be sure to put some Lovecraft into my 4 weeks of Halloween. [via NeedCoffee]
Posted by Mark on October 10, 2007 at 10:25 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
As I waded through dozens of recommendations for Anime series (thanks again to everyone who contributed), I began to wonder about a few things. Anime seems to be a pretty vast subject and while I had touched the tip of the iceberg in the past, I really didn't have a good feel for what was available. So I asked for recommendations, and now I'm on my way. But it's not like I just realized that I wanted to watch more Anime. I've wanted to do that for a little while, but I've only recently acted on it. What took so long? Why is it so hard to get started?
This isn't something that's limited to deciding what to watch either. I find that just getting started is often the most difficult part of a task (or, at least, the part I seem to get stuck on the most). Sometimes it's difficult to deal with the novelty of a thing, other times a project seems completely overwhelming. But after I've begun, things don't seem so novel or overwhelming anymore. I occasionally find myself hesitant to start a new book or load up a new video game, but once I do, things flow pretty easily (unless the book or game is a really bad one). I have a bunch of ideas for blog posts that I never get around to attacking, but usually once I start writing, ideas flow much more readily. At work, I'll sometimes find myself struggling to get started on a task, but once I get past that initial push, I'm fine. Sure, there are excuses for all of these (interruptions, email, and meetings, for instance), but while they are sometimes true obstacles, they often strike me as rationalizations. Just getting started is the problem, but once I get into the flow, it's easy to keep going.
Joel Spolsky wrote an excellent essay on the subject called Fire and Motion:
Many of my days go like this: (1) get into work (2) check email, read the web, etc. (3) decide that I might as well have lunch before getting to work (4) get back from lunch (5) check email, read the web, etc. (6) finally decide that I've got to get started (7) check email, read the web, etc. (8) decide again that I really have to get started (9) launch the damn editor and (10) write code nonstop until I don't realize that it's already 7:30 pm.It's an excellent point, and there does seem to be some sort of mental inertia at work here. But why? Why is it so difficult to get started?
When I think about this, I realize that this is a relatively new phenomenon for me. I don't remember having this sort of difficulty ten years ago. What's different? Well, I'm ten years older. The conventional wisdom is that it becomes more difficult to learn new things (i.e. to start something new) as you get older. There is some supporting evidence having to do with how the human brain becomes less malleable with time, but I'm not sure that paints the full picture. I think a big part of the problem is that as I got older, my standards rose.
Let me back up for a moment. A few years ago, a friend attempted to teach me how to drive a stick. I'd driven a automatic transmission my whole life up until that point, so the process of learning a manual transmission proved to be a challenging one. The actual mechanics of it are pretty straightforward and easily internalized. Sitting down and actually doing it, though, was another story. Intellectually, I knew what was going on, but it can be a little difficult to overcome muscle memory. I had a lot of trouble at first (and since I haven't driven a stick since then, I'd probably still have a lot of trouble today) and got extremely frustrated. My friend (who had gone through the same thing herself) laughed at it, making my lack of success even more infuriating. Eventually she explained to me that it wasn't that I was doing a bad job. It was that I was so used to being able to pick up something new and run with it, that when I had to do something extra challenging that took a little longer to pick up, I became frustrated. In short, I had higher standards for myself than I should have.
I think, perhaps, that's why it's difficult to start something new. It's not that learning has become harder, it's that I've become less tolerant of failure. My standards are higher, and that will sometimes make it hard to start something. This post, for example, has been brewing in my head for a while, but I had trouble getting started. This happens all the time, and I've actually got a bunch of ideas for posts stashed away somewhere. I've even written about this before, though only in a tangential way:
This weblog has come a long way over the three and a half years since I started it, and at this point, it barely resembles what it used to be. I started out somewhat slowly, just to get an understanding of what this blogging thing was and how to work it (remember, this was almost four years ago and blogs weren't nearly as common as they are now), but I eventually worked up into posting about once a day, on average. At that time, a post consisted mainly of a link and maybe a summary or some short commentary. Then a funny thing happened, I noticed that my blog was identical to any number of other blogs, and thus wasn't very compelling. So I got serious about it, and started really seeking out new and unusual things. I tried to shift focus away from the beaten path and started to make more substantial contributions. I think I did well at this, but it couldn't really last. It was difficult to find the offbeat stuff, even as I poured through massive quantities of blogs, articles and other information (which caused problems of it's own). I slowed down, eventually falling into an extremely irregular posting schedule on the order of once a month, which I have since attempted to correct, with, I hope, some success. I recently noticed that I have been slumping somewhat, though I'm still technically keeping to my schedule.Part of the reason I was slumping back then was that my standards were rising again. The problem is that I want what I write to turn out good, and my standards are high (relatively speaking - this is only a blog, after all). So when I sit down to write, I wonder if I'll actually be able to do the subject justice. At a certain point, though, you just have to pull the trigger and get started. The rest comes naturally. Is this post better than I had imagined? Probably not, but then, if I waited until it was perfect, I'd never post anything (and plus, that sorta defeats the purpose of blogging).
One of the things I've noticed since changing my schedule to post at least twice a week is that it forces me to lower my standards a bit, just so that I can get something out on time. Back when I started the one post a week schedule, I found that those posts were getting pretty long. I thought they were pretty good too, but as time went on, I wasn't able to keep up with my rising expectations. There's nothing inherently wrong with high expectations, but I've found it's good every now and again to adjust course. Even a well made clock drifts and must be calibrated from time to time, and so we must calibrate ourselves from time to time as well.
Update 3.15.07: It occurs to me that this post is overly-serious and may give you the wrong idea. In the comments, Pete notes that watching Anime is supposed to be fun. I agree wholeheartedly, and I didn't mean to imply differently. The same goes for blogging - I wrote a decent amount in this post about how blogging is difficult for me, but that's not really the right way to put it. I enjoy blogging too, that's why I do it. Sometimes I overthink things, and that's probably what I was doing in this post, but I think the main point holds. Learning can be impaired by high standards.
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Various links for your enjoyment:
Posted by Mark on February 21, 2007 at 08:16 PM .: link :.
Sunday, September 10, 2006
Time is short this week, so it's time for Yet Another Link Dump (YALD!):
Shockingly, it seems that I only needed to use two channels on my Monster FM Transmitter and both of those channels are the ones I use around Philly. Despite this, I've not been too happy with my FM transmitter thingy. It get's the job done, I guess, but I find myself consistently annoyed at its performace (this trip being an exception). It seems that these things are very idiosyncratic and unpredictible, working in some cars better than others (thus some people swear by one brand, while others will badmouth that same brand). In large cities like New York and Philadelphia, the FM dial gets crowded and thus it's difficult to find a suitable station, further complicating matters. I think my living in a major city area combined with an awkward placement of the cigarrette lighter in my car (which I assume is a factor) makes it somewhat difficult to find a good station. What would be really useful would be a list of available stations and an attempt to figure out ways to troubleshoot your car's idiosyncracies. Perhaps a wiki would work best for this, though I doubt I'll be motivated enought to spend the time installing a wiki system here for this purpose (does a similar site already exist? I did a quick search but came up empty-handed). (There are kits that allow you to tap into your car stereo, but they're costly and I don't feel like paying more for that than I did for the player... )
Posted by Mark on September 10, 2006 at 09:15 PM .: link :.
Saturday, August 26, 2006
Travelling Link Dump
I'll be on vacation this week, so Kaedrin compatriots Samael and DyRE will be posting in my stead, though they may not be able to post tomorrow. In any case, here are some links to chew on while I'm gone.
Sunday, August 13, 2006
It appears that I've been "tagged" (not in the cool, web 2.0ey sense of the word, but rather the lame chain-letter equivalent used in blogging - not that I mind, though) for a book meme.
Monday, July 17, 2006
The main body of text in many books is often preceded by an introduction. For most of my life, I have pretty much ignored introductions, for a number of reasons:
Since I graduated, I have read some introductions, but usually after I have read the novel. I sometimes found this rewarding, as with Thomas Pynchon's introduction to 1984 and China Mi�ville's introduction to H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, but I don't know that I would have appreciated them much had I read them before the main text. This always confused me about introductions.
In any case, about a month ago, I picked up The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca, which recounts a 1527 expedition to America. As you might expect from what amounts to a translated 16th century history book, it was somewhat slow going. Of course, I had skipped the introduction entirely, for reasons I've already belabored. I immediately lost interest and moved on to something else (plus, I had to travel, and such material doesn't make good airplane reading even if I did find it interesting). So a few days ago, I picked it up again and started reading the introduction (which I just finished now). It has that stuffy academic feel to it, but once I got into it, it started to shed some real light on the text.
There were a lot of things that initially mystified me about the main text, but which now made sense because of certain contextual clues in the Introduction. For instance, there are two versions of the book, one written explicitely for the Holy Roman Emporer Charles V in 1542, the other an edited version split into chapters with titles and a new preface targeting a broader readership in 1555 (the text had not changed much, but the preface did). This explains some of the "formality and decorum" of the account, and it's noteworthy that Cabeza de Vaca used his book as a sort of resume; he was trying to garner support for another expedition to the Indies (which would place his story under a bit of suspicion, though it apparently has been corroborated by multiple accounts.)
All of which is to say that the Intoduction for this book, unlike most books I've read, was actually useful before reading the book. It's still got that stuffy academic tone, and it is perhaps a bit too long (38 pages as compared to the ~140 pages of the main story), but it still did a decent job. I wonder if my observations make any sense, in that they are borne almost entirely out of ignorance, but in any case, all that remains for me is to actually read Cabeza de Vaca's account (this time secure in the knowledge that I actually understand what's going on from a cultural and historical context). I can already see that it will be less mystifying and more interesting this time around.
Sunday, June 18, 2006
David Wong's article on the coming video game crash seems to have inspired Steven Den Beste, who agrees with Wong that there will be a gaming crash and also thinks that the same problems affect other forms of entertainment. The crux of the problem appears to be novelty. Part of the problem appears to be evolutionary as well. As humans, we are conditioned for certain things, and it seems that two of our insticts are conflicting.
The first instinct is the human tendency to rely on induction. Correlation does not imply causation, but most of the time, we act like it does. We develop a complex set of heuristics and guidelines that we have extrapolated from past experiences. We do so because circumstances require us to make all sorts of decisions without posessing the knowledge or understanding necessary to provide a correct answer. Induction allows us to to operate in situations which we do not uderstand. Psychologist B. F. Skinner famously explored and exploited this trait in his experiments. Den Beste notes this in his post:
What you do is to reward the animal (usually by giving it a small amount of food) for progressively behaving in ways which is closer to what you want. The reason Skinner studied it was because he (correctly) thought he was empirically studying the way that higher thought in animals worked. Basically, they're wired to believe that "correlation often implies causation". Which is true, by the way. So when an animal does something and gets a reward it likes (e.g. food) it will try it again, and maybe try it a little bit differently just to see if that might increase the chance or quantity of the reward.So we're hard wired to create these heuristics. This has many implications, from Cargo Cults to Superstition and Security Beliefs.
The second instinct is the human drive to seek novelty, also noted by Den Beste:
The problem is that humans are wired to seek novelty. I think it's a result of our dietary needs. Lions can eat zebra meat exclusively their entire lives without trouble; zebras can eat grass exclusively their entire lives. They don't need novelty, but we do. Primates require a quite varied diet in order to stay healthy, and if we eat the same thing meal after meal we'll get sick. Individuals who became restless and bored with such a diet, and who sought out other things to eat, were more likely to survive. And when you found something new, you were probably deficient in something that it provided nutritionally, so it made sense to like it for a while -- until boredom set in, and you again sought out something new.The drive for diversity affects more than just our diet. Genetic diversity has been shown to impart broader immunity to disease. Children from diverse parentage tend to develop a blend of each parent's defenses (this has other implications, particularly for the tendency for human beings to work together in groups). The biological benefits of diversity are not limited to humans either. Hybrid strains of many crops have been developed over the years because by selectively mixing the best crops to replant the next year, farmers were promoting the best qualities in the species. The simple act of crossing different strains resulted in higher yields and stronger plants.
The problem here is that evolution has made the biological need for diversity and novelty dependent on our inductive reasoning instincts. As such, what we find is that those we rely upon for new entertainment, like Hollywood or the video game industry, are constantly trying to find a simple formula for a big hit.
It's hard to come up with something completely new. It's scary to even make the attempt. If you get it wrong you can flush amazingly large amounts of money down the drain. It's a long-shot gamble. Every once in a while something new comes along, when someone takes that risk, and the audience gets interested...Indeed, the majority of big films made today appear to be remakes, sequels or adaptations. One interesting thing I've noticed is that something new and exciting often fails at the box office. Such films usually gain a following on video or television though. Sometimes this is difficult to believe. For instance, The Shawshank Redemption is a very popular film. In fact, it occupies the #2 spot (just behind The Godfather) on IMDB's top rated films. And yet, the film only made $28 million dollars (ranked 52 in 1994) in theaters. To be sure, that's not a modest chunk of change, but given the universal love for this film, you'd expect that number to be much higher. I think part of the reason this movie failed at the box office was that marketers are just as susceptible to these novelty problems as everyone else. I mean, how do you market a period prison drama that has an awkward title an no big stars? It doesn't sound like a movie that would be popular, even though everyone seems to love it.
Which brings up another point. Not only is it difficult to create novelty, it can also be difficult to find novelty. This is the crux of the problem: we require novelty, but we're programmed to seek out new things via correllation. There is no place to go for perfect recommendations and novelty for the sake of novelty isn't necessarily enjoyable. I can seek out some bizarre musical style and listen to it, but the simple fact that it is novel does not guarantee that it will be enjoyable. I can't rely upon how a film is marketed because that is often misleading or, at least, not really representative of the movie (or whatever). Once we do find something we like, our instinct is often to exhaust that author or director or artist's catalog. Usually, by the end of that process, the artist's work begins to seem a little stale, for obvious reasons.
Seeking out something that is both novel and enjoyable is more difficult than it sounds. It can even be a little scary. Many times, things we think will be new actually turn out to be retreads. Other times, something may actually be novel, but unenjoyable. This leads to another phenomenon that Den Beste mentions: the "Unwatched pile." Den Beste is talking about Anime, and at this point, he's begun to accumulate a bunch of anime DVDs which he's bought but never watched. I've had similar things happen with books and movies. In fact, I have several books on my shelf, just waiting to be read, but for some of them, I'm not sure I'm willing to put in the time and effort to read them. Why? Because, for whatever reason, I've begun to experience some set of diminishing returns when it comes to certain types of books. These are similar to other books I've read, and thus I probably won't enjoy these as much (even if they are good books).
The problem is that we know something novel is out there, it's just a matter of finding it. At this point, I've gotten sick of most of the mass consumption entertainment, and have moved on to more niche forms of entertainment. This is really a signal versus noise, traversal of the long tail problem. An analysis problem. What's more, with globalization and the internet, the world is getting smaller... access to new forms of entertainment are popping up (for example, here in the US, anime was around 20 years ago, but it was nowhere near as common as it is today). This is essentially a subset of a larger information aggregation and analysis problem that we're facing. We're adrift in a sea of information, and must find better ways to navigate.
Thursday, April 20, 2006
50 Best Film Adaptations Meme
I'm generally not one to partake in memes on the blog (especially not two in a row), but I figure that since I've been writing about movies pretty much non-stop for the past month, it might make a good palate cleanser before I get obsessed with another topic.
Anyway, a few days ago, the Guardian listed the 50 best movie adaptations of books. Aside from the rather odd snubbing of the Lord of the Rings movies, a few people have started marking the list with what they've seen and read. Michael Hanscom and Jason Kottke have done so, and so will I (each line is tagged with a B if I've read the book, and an M if I've seen the move):
1. [BM] 1984
2. [B] Alice in Wonderland
3. [M] American Psycho
4. Breakfast at Tiffany's
5. Brighton Rock
6. Catch 22
7. [BM] Charlie & the Chocolate Factory
8. [M] A Clockwork Orange
9. Close Range (inc Brokeback Mountain)
10. The Day of the Triffids
11. [M] Devil in a Blue Dress
12. [M] Different Seasons (inc The Shawshank Redemption)
13. [M] Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (aka Bladerunner)
14. [M] Doctor Zhivago
15. Empire of the Sun
16. The English Patient
17. [BM] Fight Club
18. The French Lieutenant's Woman
19. [M] Get Shorty
20. [M] The Godfather
21. [M] Goldfinger
22. [M] Goodfellas
23. [M] Heart of Darkness (aka Apocalypse Now)
24. [BM] The Hound of the Baskervilles
25. [M] Jaws
26. [M] The Jungle Book
27. A Kestrel for a Knave (aka Kes)
28. [M] LA Confidential
29. [M] Les Liaisons Dangereuses
30. [M] Lolita
31. Lord of the Flies
32. [M] The Maltese Falcon
33. Oliver Twist
34. [M] One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
36. The Outsiders
37. Pride and Prejudice
38. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
39. The Railway Children
40. [M] Rebecca
41. The Remains of the Day
42. [M] Schindler's Ark (aka Schindler's List)
43. [M] Sin City
44. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
45. [M] The Talented Mr Ripley
46. Tess of the D'Urbervilles
47. Through a Glass Darkly
48. [BM] To Kill a Mockingbird
49. [M] Trainspotting
50. [M] The Vanishing
51. Watership Down
Not so bad, but nowhere near as impressive as Sameer Vasta, who has both read and seen 34 items on the list (with only 5 that he hasn't read or seen). Like everyone else who has done this, I have no idea why the top 50 adaptations actually contains 51 items...
Sunday, April 09, 2006
Philadelphia Film Festival: Adult Swim 4 Your Lives
Well. That was interesting. Hosted by Dana Snyder (voice of Master Shake from Aqua Teen Hunger Force) and featuring a veritable plethora of other Adult Swim creators, Adult Swim 4 Your Lives was a show that defies any legitimate explanation. As such, I will simply list out some highlights, as well as some words that I would use to describe the night:
Update 4.15.06: I've created a category for all posts from the Philadelphia Film Festival.
Sunday, August 21, 2005
I'm currently reading Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky. It's an interesting novel, and there are elements of the story that resemble Vinge's singularity. (Potential spoilers ahead) The story concerns two competing civilizations that travel to an alien planet. Naturally, there are confrontations and betrayals, and we learn that one of the civilizations utilizes a process to "Focus" an individual on a single area of study, essentially turning them into a brilliant machine. Naturally, there is a lot of debate about the Focused, and in doing so, one of the characters describes it like this:
... you know about really creative people, the artists who end up in your history books? As often as not, they're some poor dweeb who doesn't have a life. He or she is just totally fixated on learning everything about some single topic. A sane person couldn't justify losing friends and family to concentrate so hard. Of course, the payoff is that the dweeb may find things or make things that are totally unexpected. See, in that way, a little of Focus has always been part of the human race. We Emergents have simply institutionalized this sacrifice so the whole community can benefit in a concentrated, organized way.Debate revolves around this concept because people living in this Focused state could essentially be seen as slaves. However, the quote above reminded me of a post I wrote a while ago called Mastery:
There is an old saying "Jack of all trades, Master of none." This is indeed true, though with the demands of modern life, we are all expected to live in a constant state of partial attention and must resort to drastic measures like Self-Censorship or information filtering to deal with it all. This leads to an interesting corollary for the Master of a trade: They don't know how to do anything else!In that post, I quoted Isaac Asimov, who laments that he's clueless when it comes to cars, and relates a funny story about what happened when he once got a flat tire. I wondered if that sort of mastery was really a worthwhile goal, but the artificually induced Focus in Vinge's novel opens the floor up to several questions. Would you volunteer to be focused in a specific area of study, knowing that you would basically do that and only that? No family, no friends, but only because you are so focused on your studies (as portrayed in the novel, doing work in your field is what makes you happy). What if you could opt to be focused for a limited period of time?
There are a ton of moral and ethical questions about the practice, and as portrayed in the book, it's not a perfect process and may not be reversible (at least, not without damage). The rewards would be great - Focusing sounds like a truly astounding feat. But would it really be worth it? As portrayed in the book, it definitely would not, as those wielding the power aren't very pleasant. Because the Focused are so busy concentrating on their area of study, they become completely dependent on the non-Focused to guide them (it's possible for a Focused person to become too-obsessed with a problem, to the point where physical harm or even death can occur) and do everything else for them (i.e. feed them, clean them, etc...) Again, in the book, those who are guiding the Focused are ruthless exploiters. However, if you had a non-Focused guide who you trusted, would you consider it?
I still don't know that I would. While the results would surely be high quality, the potential for abuse is astounding, even when it's someone you trust that is pulling the strings. Nothing says they'll stay trustworthy, and it's quite possible that they could be replaced in some way by someone less trustworthy. If the process was softened to the point where the Focused retains at least some control over their focus (including the ability to go in and out), then this would probably be a more viable option. Fortunately, I don't see this sort of thing happening in the way proposed by the book, but other scenarios present interesting dilemmas as well...
Sunday, July 31, 2005
Yet another lazy post filled with links. Enjoy:
Sunday, July 24, 2005
Liveblogging Harry Potter, Part 3
Well at this point, I've pretty much abandoned any pretense at actually liveblogging. I finished the book earlier this week, but have been to busy to post comments. Unlike previous installments, this post will contain lots of spoilers, but I'll put them in the extended entry so as not to expose them on the main page...
Tuesday, July 19, 2005
Liveblogging Harry Potter, Part 2
Well, I suppose this hardly qualifies as liveblogging anymore, as I've read over 300 pages since my last update, but such petty details notwithstanding, below are some more thoughts I've had while reading.
Sunday, July 17, 2005
In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, there are a number of new security measures suggested by the Ministry of Magic (as Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters have been running amuk). Some of them are common sense but some of them are much more questionable. Since I've also been reading prominent muggle and security expert Bruce Schneier's book, Beyond Fear, I thought it might be fun to analyze one of the Ministry of Magic's security measures according to Schneier's 5 step process.
Here is the security measure I've chosen to evaluate, as shown on page 42 of my edition:
Agree on security questions with close friends and family, so as to detect Death Eaters masquerading as others by use of the Polyjuice Potion.For those not in the know, Polyjuice Potion allows the drinker to assume the appearance of someone else, presumably someone you know. Certainly a dangerous attack. The proposed solution is a "security question", set up in advance, so that you can verify the identity of the person in question.
Saturday, July 16, 2005
Liveblogging Harry Potter, Part 1
Odd as it may seem, that is exactly what a curiously unnamed BBC reporter has done for the just-released Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. As said book has arrived in the mail today, I figured I might as well just follow the Beeb's lead and liveblog my reading of the book.
I'm no speedreader - the aformentioned reporter apparently read at a pace higher than 100 pages per hour - and I don't particularly want to finish the book that quickly, so this will most likely be spread out over the next few days.
Before I started reading, I read this summary of the previous book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (thanks to Nate for the pointer). I didn't especially enjoy that book. It seemed a distinct step down from the Goblet of Fire, and thus my hopes are not as high for the new volume (which, as I've noted before, could act in its favor). And so I give you, the first two chapters of the new Harry Potter book. Additional chapters will be added to this entry as I read them (new chapters will be on the bottom). I'll attempt to keep things vague, but I must warn: Potential SPOILERS ahead. (as of now, I'm two chapters in, and no real spoilers).
Again Update:Added some more stuff. Will probably write the security entry soon, and will then start a "Part 2" of this post.
Update 7.19.05: Part 2 is up, as is the discussion on magic security I hinted at above..
Sunday, December 19, 2004
The Final Baghdad Journal
The final entry in an exceptional series of articles written by a New York artist, Steve Mumford, on his experiences in Iraq has been posted. As always, it is compelling reading and depicts an Iraq not normally seen from the usual sources.
Apparently Mumford's work has been gathering more and more attention; those who have been following his work will be interested in this NY Times article (registration required) which provides a little background into Mumford's motivations and inspiration.
Now 44, Mr. Mumford had been comfortably embedded in the London and New York gallery worlds. He was known for paintings that seemed to pit two disparate Americas - wilderness and society - against each other by depicting, for example, a car seen against a sublime landscape or a wild animal about to pounce at a house. ... Mr. Mumford says his inspiration for the project stemmed directly from his admiration for the painter Winslow Homer, who was sent to the front during the Civil War to sketch for Harper's Weekly.The article mentions that this latest installment is unfortunately also the final one (though one wonder whether his newfound friendships with Iraqi artists will lead to further "journal" entries in the future). As always, it is an excellent read. Artnet has collected all of the Baghdad Journals here, if you're interested.
Posted by Mark on December 19, 2004 at 10:49 PM .: link :.
Saturday, October 23, 2004
The new Slashdot interview with Neal Stephenson is an unexpected treat. Not only are the questions great, but Stephenson's responses are witty and somewhat more profound (and much longer, as he had time to compose answers to some of the more difficult questions). As Nate points out, one of the more enlightening answers deals with the much rumored feud between Stephenson and William Gibson:
I was doing a reading/signing at White Dwarf Books in Vancouver. Gibson stopped by to say hello and extended his hand as if to shake. But I remembered something Bruce Sterling had told me. For, at the time, Sterling and I had formed a pact to fight Gibson. Gibson had been regrown in a vat from scraps of DNA after Sterling had crashed an LNG tanker into Gibson's Stealth pleasure barge in the Straits of Juan de Fuca. During the regeneration process, telescoping Carbonite stilettos had been incorporated into Gibson's arms. Remembering this in the nick of time, I grabbed the signing table and flipped it up between us. Of course the Carbonite stilettos pierced it as if it were cork board, but this spoiled his aim long enough for me to whip my wakizashi out from between my shoulder blades and swing at his head. He deflected the blow with a force blast that sprained my wrist. The falling table knocked over a space heater and set fire to the store. Everyone else fled. Gibson and I dueled among blazing stacks of books for a while. Slowly I gained the upper hand, for, on defense, his Praying Mantis style was no match for my Flying Cloud technique. But I lost him behind a cloud of smoke. Then I had to get out of the place. The streets were crowded with his black-suited minions and I had to turn into a swarm of locusts and fly back to Seattle.Heh. Stephenson apparently fought Gibson two times after that, and the interview is worth reading just because of that answer... but the whole thing is worth reading, especially his answer regarding why genre and popular writers don't get the literary respect they deserve (or don't, depending on your point of view). [Thanks again to Nate for pointing this out to me, who, in my work induced haze, had missed it entirely]
Update: Just for fun, I checked out Stephenson's homepage and found this picture of the entire Baroque Cycle manuscript:
Again Update: Holy Crap! Stephenson t-shirts? And they look cool too! Why was I not informed? Damn you monkey research squad!
Posted by Mark on October 23, 2004 at 12:04 PM .: link :.
Sunday, September 26, 2004
Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came
So the seventh and final book in Stephen King's Dark Tower series, aptly titled The Dark Tower, is finally out. The series was a good 25 years in the making, and to be honest, I never thought he'd finish it (especially after his several threats of retirement). I'm not sure I would have minded, either, because I've always been a bit disappointed by the way he ends a lot of his stories. It often feels like he's just making it up as he goes along, assembling various interesting ideas and using them to drive a story, but he sometimes backs himself into a corner. In any case, about a year ago, King started publishing new Dark Tower novels on a regular schedule. In these new novels, I've been noticing things that lead me to believe that the ending is going to stink, that King knows it, and that he is attempting to lower expectations. There are several examples, and I've posted about them before. I guess this is a bit repetitive, but I find it interesting.
The first page of the new book has several quotes from various sources (authors often do this, choosing quotations that go along with the themes of the story), one of which is Robert Browning's poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" which King claims was the inspiration for the entire Dark Tower series. Another quote, by Trent Reznor (from the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt), doesn't do much to assuage my doubts:
What have I become?I know this is a bit unfair to Mr. King, but I have my doubts. Then again, expectations play a big part in perception, and I could certainly end up happy with the ending because I don't expect it to be good (a la my feelings on The Village).
Posted by Mark on September 26, 2004 at 10:32 PM .: link :.
Thursday, August 12, 2004
Blame it on Ka
This is a follow up to my last post on Stephen King's Dark Tower series. I just finished the latest installment of said series, entitled Song of Susannah. In some ways I'm not very happy with it, but I'm willing to give King the benefit of the doubt. I still don't expect to like the ending, and King seems to be dropping hints all over the place indicating that my fears are well founded. I referenced one in my last post, but there were others in this book, such as this one in which Roland talks to a "fictional" Stephen King who is afraid he won't finish the story:
"I'm afraid."I didn't much like the idea of King writing himself into the story, but the way he did so was agreeable enough (I don't like that he did it at all, but considering that he did, it could have been worse). In any case, it's stuff like that excerpt that make me think King is trying to lower expectations. What's more, he's blaming it on ka (for the uninitiated, ka is roughly translated as "destiny" though there is more to it than that)! He's done this before too - in my last post I referenced the cliffhanger ending of the third Dark Tower novel, The Waste Lands. He claimed that the ending just felt right, that "the wind just stopped blowing" and that the book should end where it did. Further, he claimed that he didn't even know how it would end. Six years later, he wrote the next book in the series and finally resolved that conflict. Such an event, if we are to take King at his word, strengthens the suspicion that he's just making this up as he goes along. Naturally, I'm worried about how this is going to end.
On the bright side, Song of Susannah was a quick, fun read - a real page-turner. And I do think King could pull this thing off, but I'm very suspicious. Or perhaps I'm just subconsciously trying to set the standards low so I won't be disappointed in the series when it ends (a la my post on expectations and The Village).
Posted by Mark on August 12, 2004 at 10:33 PM .: link :.
Monday, August 09, 2004
Bracing for Disappointment
I'm currently reading the latest installment of Stephen King's Dark Tower series, entitled Song of Susannah. The series started over twenty years ago, with the publication of The Gunslinger. The series tells the tale of Roland of Gilead, the last gunslinger, and his quest for the Dark Tower. Along the way, he picks up 3 companions, and they travel along a challenge ridden path, filled with imaginative characters and landscapes. It's astoundingly ambitious, and the story has always had a teasing sort of visible potential.
Unfortunately, I've often felt that King doesn't know how to end his novels - it seems like he just makes up a bunch of compelling concepts, follows through a bit, then promptly corners himself. He sometimes manages to weasel his way out of it, but I don't generally end up satisfied. Even within the Dark Tower series, he's done some odd things (namely, the way he ended the third book - The Waste Lands - was a cliffhanger, and he didn't write the next book for 5 years). So naturally I'm a little apprehensive about the impending end of the Dark Tower series.
I read a part last night which made me feel like King knows we're not going to like it. It's a piece of dialogue between two characters (actually two personalities in the same person, but I digress), but it might as well be between King and his audience:
And remember Susannah-Mio, if you want my cooperation, you give me some straight answers.Ok, so it's unfair to put those words in King's mouth like that, but that's basically how I think the rest of the series is going to go - he's going to answer a lot of the questions he brought up, but I don't expect to like them, or even understand them. It just feels like he's making it up as he's going along, and he's written himself into a corner again, with no way out. I hope I'm wrong, and I don't want to write King off completely, but if the chapter that follows the exerpt above is any indication, I'm worried.
Posted by Mark on August 09, 2004 at 11:02 PM .: link :.
Sunday, May 16, 2004
For the past week or so, some perfidious folk have been posting about a list of "great works" that had been circulating the net. I won't go into the details of the list, nor will I denote which works I've read (I've read several, but not a ton and not as much as several of the people who responded to that post), but I did want to comment on their attempt to revise the list to include some science fiction and humor. In addition to the list cited above, they came up with:
HST: Fear and Loathing in Las VegasAn excellent list, though I have only read a few of them (and if they weren't in the book queue, they are now). Then they went ahead and asked for some more, with the following ground rules:
First, nothing newer than, say, about 1970. Works need some time to settle into a canon, and we should not be thinking about something written after I was born. Second, philosophy and history should be eliminated from the list unless they have compelling literary value. Clausewitz is terrifically important, but nearly unreadable. Gibbon however, is a delight to read as well as being profoundly ensmartening. Third, light on the poetry. And fourth, no matter how painful it is, no more than one example of an artist?s work unless they are a) Shakespeare, b) writing in two distinctly different genres/modes, or c) both.With those rules in mind, Buckethead came up with these additions:
Milton, John - Paradise LostThese additions to the original list turn out to be more in line with what I tend to read. In general, these sorts of lists tend to eschew genre, especially science fiction, fantasy, horror, and even mystery, which is why I like the additions so much. So in the spirit of this discussion, I'd like to make a few humble additions.
Just for fun, and to keep up with this perfidious discussion, here are the books I've been reading recently. I tend to read more fiction than non-fiction, but that has been steadily changing as time goes on. In any case, I'm only including the last few... Here they are:
The Confusion by Neal Stephenson (current)Non-Fiction
Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson (current)There you have it. If you'd like to share what you've been reading lately, feel free to leave a comment...
Posted by Mark on May 16, 2004 at 02:35 PM .: link :.
Sunday, January 25, 2004
Pynchon : Stephenson :: Apples : Oranges
The publication of Cryptonomicon lead to lots of comparisons with Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow in reviews. This was mostly based on the rather flimsy convergences of WWII and technology in the two novels. There were also some thematic similarities, but given the breadth of themes in Gravity's Rainbow, that isn't really a surprise. They did not resemble each other stylistically, nor did the narratives really resemble one another. There was, I suppose, a certain amount of playfulness present in both works, but in the end, anyone who read one and then the other would be struck by the contrast.
However, having recently read Stephenson's Quicksilver, I can see more of a resemblance to Pynchon. With Quicksilver, Stephenson displays a great deal more playfulness with style and narrative. He's become more willing to cut loose, explore language, fit the style to the situation he is describing and even slip out of "novel" format, whether it be the laundry list compilation style of Royal Society meeting notes (for example, pages 182 - 186), the epistolatory exploits of Eliza (pages 636 - 659 among many others), or theater script format (pages 716 - 729). Stephenson isn't quite as spastic as Pynchon, but the similarities between their styles are more than skin deep. In addition to this playfulness in the narrative style, Stephenson, like Pynchon, associates certain styles with specific characters (most notably the epistolatory style that is used for Eliza). Again, Stephenson is much less radical than Pynchon, and only applies a fraction of the techniques that Pynchon employs in his novel, but Stephenson has progressed nicely in his recent works.
Most of the time, Stephenson is considerably more prosaic than Pynchon, and even when he does branch out stylistically, it is done in service of the story. The Eliza letters again provide a good example. The epistolatory style allows Stephenson to write for a different audience. We know this, and thus Stephenson has a good time messing with us, especially towards the end of the novel where he takes it a step further and shows Eliza's encrypted letters and journal entries as translated by Bonaventure Rossignol (in the form of a letter to Louis XIV). All of this serves to further the plot. Pynchon, on the other hand, is more concerned with playfully exploring the narrative by experimenting with the English language. The plot takes a secondary role to the style, and to a certain extent the style drives the plot (well, that might be a bit of a stretch) and while Pynchon is one of the few who can pull it off, Stephenson's style doesn't really compare. They're two different things, really.
Nate has a great post on this very subject, and he shows that a comparison of Quicksilver with Pynchon's novel Mason & Dixon is more apt:
The style of Mason Dixon is a synthesis of old and new that hews remarkably close to the old. Stephenson, on the other hand, writes in a much more modern style, only occasionally dotting his prose with historical flourishes ... The distinction here is an old one; classical rhetoricians spoke of Asiatic versus Attic style - the former is ornate, lush, and detailed, while the latter is lean, clean, and direct. Stephenson is a master of Attic style - a fact that's often obscured because, while his sentences are direct and elegant, their substance is often convoluted and complex. You can see it more clearly in his nonfiction - look at his explanation of the Metaweb for an excellent example. Pynchon, as an Asiatic writer, will elicit more "oohs" and "ahhs" for the power and grace of his prose, but will tend to lose his readers when he's trying to be florid and tackling difficult material at the same time. Obviously, both authors will tend toward the Attic or the Asiatic at different points, but in general, Stephenson wants his language to transparently convey his message, while Pynchon demands a certain amount of attention for the language itself.I haven't read Mason & Dixon (it's in the queue), but from what I've heard this sounds pretty accurate. Again, he makes the point that Pynchon and Stephenson are on different playing fields, appropriating their styles to serve different purposes... and it shows. Stephenson is a lot more fun to read for someone like me because I prefer storytelling to experimental narrative fiction.
I recently read Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, and was shocked by the clarity of the straightforward and yet still vibrant prose. In that respect, I think Stephenson's work might resemble Crying more than the novels discussed in this post...
Update: As I write this, Pynchon is making his appearance on the Simpsons. Coincidence?
Posted by Mark on January 25, 2004 at 08:19 PM .: link :.
Tuesday, December 30, 2003
Each will have his personal Rocket
I finally finished my review of Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow. Since I blogged about the novel often, I figured I'd let everyone know it's out there. Oddly, when writing the review, I wrote the last paragraph first:
If I were to meet Thomas Pynchon tomorrow, I wouldn't know whether to shake his hand or sucker-punch him. Probably both. I'd extend my right arm, take his hand in mine, give one good pump, then yank him towards my swinging left fist. As he lay crumpled on the ground beneath me, gasping in pain, I'd point a bony finger right between his eyes and say "That was for Gravity's Rainbow." I think he'd understand.Heh. I also wrote up a rather lengthy selection of quotes from the novel, with some added commentary. And in case you missed the previous bloggery about Gravity's Rainbow, here they are, in all their glory:
Posted by Mark on December 30, 2003 at 09:47 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, November 26, 2003
Recent and Future Consumption
For reasons which are unclear to me, my recent movie viewing has been somewhat limited. I shall have to remedy that. I've seen the big blockbusters, but I have no offbeat recommendations (as I usually do) at this time. As far as the biggies go, Matrix Revolutions wasn't that bad until the ending, which blew. It's not so much that it didn't make sense as that it was so poorly communicated. Up until then I was very entertained (unless I started thinking about it and nitpicking), which was pretty much all I expected. Brad Wardell apparently saw a different, much better, version of the film. Widge provides an alternate ending (pdf) (an overall treatment, actually), one of millions that frustrated fans have made up.
Master and Commander was beautifully shot and well done overall, but the entire middle section drags and could have benefitted from some judicious editing (so could both of the Matrix sequels, come to think of it). Elf was funny and suprisingly innocent. Could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what type of person you are...
Recent listening has also been curtailed, thanks to a rogue car stereo that is taking longer than expected to fix. Stupid car. Anyway, the latest Guster album has grown on me significantly (though I still don't love it) since I last mentioned it, but the new A Perfect Circle album stinks and doesn't show any signs of growing on me. A pity, that. Let's hope Maynard doesn't let this bleed through (no pun intended, see below) to Tool...
New NIN album, to be titled bleedthrough, is coming "soon." I'll let you know how it is when it comes out in 2006. As usual, Meathead weighs in on this news with his unique brand of NIN-oriented wit and insight.
The public's reaction to BLEEDTHROUGH's title has been mixed. While some fans love it because it sounds "goth" and "angsty," others hate it because they feel it sounds "goth" and "angsty."A few song titles have been released, and his thoughts on their effectiveness, especially that of "My Dead Friend," are hilarious. I don't give a crap about album or song titles (and I don't generally listen to the lyrics either) so I'll have to wait until "soon" becomes "now" before I can pass any judgement...
The Kill Bill: Volume 1 soundtrack is twisted and groovy (kinda like the movie). From the kickass trailer music of Tomoyasu Hotei's "Battle Without Honor or Humanity" to Isaac Hayes' "Run Fay Run" to Santa Esmeralda's crazed cover of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," it's an interesting album to say the least...
A friend recently blessed me with two supposed classics of electronica, U.N.K.L.E.'s Psyence Fiction and Coldcut's Journeys by DJ. Psyence Fiction has some great moments and several good songs, but wasn't particularly brilliant. Journeys by DJ was ho-hum, but scored extra points for using the Doctor Who theme in a few tracks.
Speaking of which, it looks like the BBC will be bringing back Doctor Who, though the good doctor has yet to be cast. In the mean time, check out these animated episodes (which I had no idea even existed). [via Crooked Timber]
I've noticed that my recent television viewing has been mostly limited to cartoons. The Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy, and other Adult Swim type stuff. My friends force me to watch 24 and I'll catch an occasional hockey game though, so it's not all cartoons...
I recently purchased the NHL 2004 video game, and it has since eaten my soul. Sports games always cracked me up because they release a new one every year that is usually only marginally different than the previous year's game (often the most significant change is to reflect current rosters). But the trend recently is to include some sort of General Management meta-game where you get to play General Manager and deal with contracts, trades, ticket-prices, etc... NHL 2004 is the first hockey game that I've played that has this feature, and it does put a whole new spin on what is otherwise not much different than NHL 1998. Then again, I'm not sure anything beats the halcyon days of the early 1990s NHL games... the player control in 2004 is a little disorienting compared to previous games, but we have still come a long way...
As for reading, I'm still chugging away at Quicksilver, which bogged down for a bit and is now picking up again. I'm not really sure what it's about yet, and from what others have said, I'm not sure it is about anything. Yet. Still two more books coming where he'll no doubt expand on that. For now it seems like nothing more than a ribald series of intellectual or picaresque adventures that are related but not oriented in any one direction. Yet.
Update 11.27.03 - DyRE informs me that I must have transposed a couple of numbers and that we should expect the new NIN album sometime around 2060, not 2006. My mistake.
Posted by Mark on November 26, 2003 at 10:33 PM .: link :.
Sunday, November 23, 2003
Venice Yellow Sunset
Venice Yellow Sunset
I mentioned this a while ago, and I thought I'd post it. I ain't no master of the camera or anything, so it's a little skewed and the color is off a bit, but you get the idea. It's hanging on my wall. Right next to all my movie posters. Very classy.
Posted by Mark on November 23, 2003 at 08:33 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, November 12, 2003
The Iraqi Art Scene
Steve Mumford's latest Baghdad Journal is up, and it is, as usual, excellent. In it, he actually focuses on the burgeoning Iraqi art scene (How dare he? I've become so accustomed to his other observations that I was somewhat surprised to see him talking about art. Then I remembered that he is an artist and that his articles are published in an internet art magazine. Duh.) Instead of showcasing Mumford's art, as previous installments have done, this article exhibits the works of various Iraqi artists that Mumford was impressed with (and for good reason, at least according to my unrefined eyes). The artistic community is growing in Iraq, in no small part due to the newfound access they have to information from around the world...
Of the younger generation, Ahmed Al-Safi is a particularly talented painter and sculptor who's managed to make a living selling his art. He paints simple, almost crudely rendered figures reminiscent of the German Neo-Expressionists of the 1980s (whose work he immediately investigated on the web when I told him about them). Ahmed has a wonderful studio in the slummy but picturesque part of town near Tarea Square, where he has bronze-casting facilities.Emphasis mine. Change is coming to the Iraqi art scene, and while they are now soaking up that which is newly available to them, I find myself eager to see what the Iraqis contribute back to the world art scene...
One widely repeated observation here is that abstraction was a convenient technique for a time when all narrative content was suspect. Everyone expects art to change with the passing of Saddam's regime, though at this point, no one I talked to is making any predictions about future trends in Iraqi art. I've seen no video art and practically no photography in Baghdad. Installation art is unknown. Indeed, few artists in Iraq have even heard of Andy Warhol. Now that communication with the rest of the world is starting to open up, Iraqi artists will discover just how large an ocean they're swimming in.I'm not an artist, but I know what I like and if the art that Mumford posted is any indication, I hope and believe we'll find that the Iraqis will be strong swimmers in the large ocean of art. More on this subject later...
Update: I just thought I'd pick one of my favorite paintings to display here...
oil on canvas
Mumford describes Muayad Muhsin as "a younger surrealist painter from Hilla" and I like this painting a lot. I don't know art, but have some general knowledge of the visual medium from film, and while it may be foolish to apply film theory to art, I think it might provide some insight. The cool colors suggest an aloof tranquility, a calmness, but the oblique angle produces a sense of visual irresolution and unresolved anxiety. It suggests tension, transition, and impending change. The end result is a feeling of calm, but tense and unstable, transition. It seems appropriate...
Posted by Mark on November 12, 2003 at 12:42 AM .: link :.
Sunday, November 02, 2003
Halloween has past* but since horror is one of my favorite genres, I figured I'd list out some good examples of horror books & movies because it's always fun to scare yourself witless. When it comes to film, horror is one of the more difficult genres to execute effectively and, as such, the genuinely great horror films are few and far between. What's left are a series of downright creepy, but flawed, films. Because of their flaws, many horror films are often overlooked and underrated and these are the films I'd like to mention here. Books, on the other hand, tend to be overlooked and underrated as a medium. Horror books doubly so.
I've never been a fan of the classic 1950's horror films like the Mummy, Dracula, or Frankenstein... They're not without their charm, but when it comes to the classics, I prefer their source materiel to the films. For classics, I would mention Halloween (1978, it started the lackluster "slasher" sub-genre, but it is an excellent film, particularly it's soundtrack), Jaws (1975, another excellent soundtrack here, but there was plenty else that made people afraid to go back into the water again...), Psycho (1960, the sudden shifts and feints coupled with, again, a distinctive and effective soundtrack, make for a brutally effective film), Alien (1979, "In space, no one can hear you scream." Director Ridley Scott really knew how to turn the screws with this one), The Exorcist (1973, The power of Christ compels you... to wet yourself in despair whilst watching this film) and The Shining (1980, Kubrick's interpretation of King's masterwork is significantly different, but it is also one of the few examples of an adaptation that works well in it's own right).
But those are all films we know and love. What about the one's we haven't seen? Director John Carpenter built an impressive string of neglected horror films throughout the 1980s and early 1990s (a pity that he has since lost his touch). Aside from the classic Halloween, Carpenter directed the 1982 remake of The Thing, which was brilliantly updated and downright creepy. It has its fill of scary moments, not the least of which is the cryptic and ambiguous ending. He followed that with Christine. Adapted from the novel by Stephen King, Carpenter was able to make a silly story creepy with the sheer will of his technical mastery (not his best, but impressive nonetheless). His 1987 film Prince of Darkness was flawed but undeniably effective. Many have not heard of In the Mouth of Madness, but it has become one of my favorite horror films of the 1990s.
If you're not scared away by subtitles or foreign films, check out Dario Argento's seminal 1977 gorefest Suspiria, which boasts opening and ending scenes amongst the best in the genre. Argento's rival, Lucio Fulci, also has an impressive series of gory horror classics, such as the 1980 film The Gates of Hell. Both Argento and Fulci have an impressive body of work and are worth checking out if you don't mind them being in Italian...
The 1970's and early 1980's were an excellent period in horror filmmaking. Excluding the films already mentioned (a significant portion of the classics are from the 1970s), you may want to check out the 1980 movie The Changeling, an excellent ghost story, or perhaps the disturbing 1981 film The Incubus. And how could I write about horror movies without mentioning my beloved 1979 cheesy creepfest Phantasm. Other 70s flicks to check out: The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Salem's Lot (a 1979 TV miniseries based on Stephen King's book), The Omen (1976), Carrie (1976), Blue Sunshine (1976, almost forgotten today), The Wicker Man (1973), The Legend of Hell House (1973, a personal favorite, adapted from a novel by Richard Matheson, who we'll get to in a moment), and of course we can't forget that lovable flesh-wearing cannibal, Leatherface, in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
Ok, so I think I've inundated you with enough movies, hopefully many of which you've never heard of, for now so let's move on to books (naturally, I could go on and on and on just listing out good horror flicks, but this is at least a good start).
My knowledge of Horror literature is less extensive than horror film, but I have a fair base to work from. We all know the classics, Dracula, Frankenstein, and the works of Edgar Allen Poe, but there are many overlooked horror stories floating around as well.
M.R. James (1862-1936) is one of the originators of the modern Ghost Story, and there are several exemplary examples of this sub-genre in his oeuvre. His works are public domain, so follow the link above for online versions... I especially enjoyed the creepy Count Magnus.
Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is a classic that is rightly praised as one of the finest horror novels ever written.
Richard Matheson's brilliant I Am Legend is a study of isolation and grim irony that turns the traditional vampire story on its head. This might be one of the most influential novels you've never heard of, as there have been many derivatives, particularly in film.
H.P. Lovecraft is another fantastic short story author whose work has been tremendously influential to modern horror. His infamous Cthulhu Mythos and Necronomicon were ingenious creations, and many have seized on them and attempted to follow in his footsteps. Indeed, many even believe his fictional Necronomicon to be real!
You might have noticed Stephen King's name mentioned a few times already, and there is a reason so many of his books are turned into movies. I've never been a huge King fan, but The Shining is among the best horror novels I've read. I've always preferred Dean Koontz (sadly he has absolutely no good film adaptations), who wrote such notable horror staples as Phantoms, Midnight, and The Servants of Twilight. Both Koontz and King can be hit-or-miss, but when they're on, there's no one better.
Other books of note: Clive Barker's The Hellbound Heart (which was adapted into the 1987 film Hellraiser) is an excellent short read (about 120 pages), and some of his longer works, such as The Great and Secret Show and Imajica, are also good. F. Paul Wilson's The Keep is one of the few books that has ever truly scared me while reading it. I've always found William Peter Blatty's novel, The Exorcist, to be more effective than the movie (and that is saying a lot!). Brian Lumly's Necroscope series is an interesting take on the vampire legend, and his Titus Crow series builds on Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos nicely.
Well, there you have it. That should keep you busy for the next few years...
* One would think that this post should have been made last week, and one would be right, but then one would also not be too familiar with how we do things here at Kaedrin. Note that the best movies of 2001 is due sometime around mid-2004. Heh. This whole being timely with content thing is something I have always had difficulty with and need to work on, but that is another topic for another post...
Posted by Mark on November 02, 2003 at 07:51 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, September 24, 2003
I stopped by the bookstore tonight to pick up Quicksilver and while I was there, I happened upon the new edition of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. This new edition contains a foreward by none other than Thomas Pynchon, vaunted author and recluse whose similarly prophetic novel, Gravity's Rainbow, has been giving me headaches for the past year or so... Pynchon was a good choice; he's able to place Orwell's novel, including its conception and composition, in its proper cultural and historical context while at the same time applying the humanistic themes of the novel to current times (without, I might add, succumbing to the tempation to list out what Orwell did or didn't "get right" - indeed, Pynchon even takes a humorous swipe at the tendency to do so - "Orwellian, dude!"). And to top that off, I'm a sucker for his style - whatever one he might be employing at the time (this time around it's his nonfiction style, with an alternating elegance and brazenness that works so well).
It's interesting reading, though I don't agree with everything he says. Towards the beginning of the forward, he mentions this bit:
Now, those of fascistic disposition - or merely those among us who remain all too ready to justify any government action, whether right or wrong - will immediately point out that this is prewar thinking, and that the moment enemy bombs begin to fall on one's homeland, altering the landscape and producing casualties among friends and neighbours, all this sort of thing, really, becomes irrelevant, if not indeed subversive. With the homeland in danger, strong leadership and effective measures become of the essence, and if you want to call that fascism, very well, call it whatever you please, no one is likely to be listening, unless it's for the air raids to be over and the all clear to sound. But the unseemliness of an argument - let alone a prophecy - in the heat of some later emergency, does not necessarily make it wrong. One could certainly argue that Churchill's war cabinet had behaved on occasion no differently from a fascist regime, censoring news, controlling wages and prices, restricting travel, subordinating civil liberties to self-defined wartime necessity.Though he doesn't clearly come out and say it and he is careful even with his historical example, Pynchon clearly fears for America's future in the wake of the "war on terror" and sees Orwell's work not only as a commentary on the perils of communism, but as a warning to democracy. As a general point, I can see that, but you could read Pynchon as believing that Orwell's point equally applies to the policies of, say, the current administration, which I think is a bit of a stretch. For one thing, our system of limited governance already has mechanisms for self-examination and public debate, not to mention checks and balances between certain key elements of the government. For another, our primary enemies now are no longer the forces of progress.
As Pynchon himself notes, Orwell failed to see religious fundamentalism as a threat, and today this is the main enemy we face. It isn't the progress of science and technology that threatens us (at least not in the way expected), but rather a reversion to fundamentalist religion, and Pynchon is hesitant to see that. He tends to be obsessed with the mechanics of paranoia and conspiracy when it comes to technology. This is exemplified by his attitude towards the internet:
...the internet, a development that promises social control on a scale those quaint old 20th-century tyrants with their goofy moustaches could only dream about.As erich notes, perhaps someone should introduce Pynchon to the hacker subculture, where anarchists deface government and corporate websites, bored kids bring corporate websites to their knees with viruses or DDOS attacks, and bloggers aggregate and debate. Or perhaps our problem will be that with an increase in informational transparency, "Orwellian" scrutiny will to some extent become democratized; abuse of privacy will no longer limited to corporations and states. As William Gibson notes:
"1984" remains one of the quickest and most succinct routes to the core realities of 1948. If you wish to know an era, study its most lucid nightmares. In the mirrors of our darkest fears, much will be revealed. But don't mistake those mirrors for road maps to the future, or even to the present.Stranger problems indeed. But Pynchon isn't all frowns, he actually ends on a note of hope regarding the appendix, which provides an explanation of Newspeak:
why end a novel as passionate, violent and dark as this one with what appears to be a scholarly appendix?Overall, Pynchon's essay is excellent and thought-provoking, if a little paranoid. He tackles more than I have commented on, and he does so in affable style. A commentor at erich's site concludes:
Orwell, to his everlasting credit, saw clearly the threat posed by communism, and spoke out forcefully against it. Unfortunately, as Pynchon's new introduction reminds us, the same cannot be said for far too many on the Left, who remain incapable of making rational distinctions between our constitutional republic and the slavery over which we won a great triumph in the last century.Indeed.
Update - Most of the text of Pynchon's essay can be found here.
Another Update - Rodney Welch notices a that Pynchon's theory regarding the appendix appears to have been lifted by Guardian columnist, Margaret Atwood. Dave Kipen comments that it's possible that both are paraphrasing an old idea, but he doubts it. Any Orwellians care to shed some light on the originality of the "happy ending" theory?
Another Update: More here.
Posted by Mark on September 24, 2003 at 12:40 AM .: link :.
Sunday, July 20, 2003
Footnotes from Beyond the Zero, Part V
I recently finished off Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, and since my brain has stopped hemorrhaging, I figured it was time to go back and continue cataloguing items of interest, quotes, and other footnotey type stuff. I've been doing this since I started the novel, about a year ago. See: [part I | part II | part III | part IV]
Posted by Mark on July 20, 2003 at 09:36 PM .: link :.
Thursday, June 26, 2003
The road to 1984
The Road to Oceania by William Gibson : When George Orwell had to come up with a name for his classic piece of dystopian literature, he did so by inverting the last two digits of the year of his book's completion. Thus 1984 was born, but it was not a novel about the future, it was a novel about 1948. As such, while its still a shocking dystopian vision of what could have been, we've got other fish to fry.
Elsewhere, driven by the acceleration of computing power and connectivity and the simultaneous development of surveillance systems and tracking technologies, we are approaching a theoretical state of absolute informational transparency, one in which "Orwellian" scrutiny is no longer a strictly hierarchical, top-down activity, but to some extent a democratized one. As individuals steadily lose degrees of privacy, so, too, do corporations and states. Loss of traditional privacies may seem in the short term to be driven by issues of national security, but this may prove in time to have been intrinsic to the nature of ubiquitous information.I find this to be an interesting perspective, though I'm not sure how close we'd ever get to a "state of absolute informational transparency".
This is not to say that Orwell failed in any way, but rather that he succeeded. "1984" remains one of the quickest and most succinct routes to the core realities of 1948. If you wish to know an era, study its most lucid nightmares. In the mirrors of our darkest fears, much will be revealed. But don't mistake those mirrors for road maps to the future, or even to the present.Read the whole thing, as they say. Just as a note, you might want to check out the spiffy new edition of 1984 that was recently released with a new forward by some Thomas Pynchon guy. [via Instapundit]
Posted by Mark on June 26, 2003 at 07:34 PM .: link :.
Sunday, January 12, 2003
Footnotes from Beyond the Zero, part IV
Yet another entry in an ongoing project to collect interesting tidbits, quotes, and footnotes for Thomas Pynchon's novel, Gravity's Rainbow. Strangely, the novel has begun to take form for me, actually being coherant at times with some sort of plot now apparent (albeit not a linear or traditional one). See also: [part I | part II | part III]
Posted by Mark on January 12, 2003 at 03:44 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, August 28, 2002
Footnotes from Beyond the Zero, part III
This is yet another in what will likely be a long series of posts cataloging some of the interesting little footnotes I've been making while reading Thomas Pynchon's novel, Gravity's Rainbow. The prose is beautiful and thick with historical references, and so when I come upon a particularly interesting passage or historical tidbit, I note it here. See also: [part I | part II]
Posted by Mark on August 28, 2002 at 12:07 AM .: link :.
Sunday, July 21, 2002
Footnotes from Beyond the Zero, part II
For those who will inevitably be flummoxed by this entry, be aware that it is part of an ongoing attempt to illustrate some of the things in Thomas Pynchon's novel, Gravity's Rainbow, that I find interesting (see Part I)... This is going to be a weird one, folks, so lets stay frosty:
Dr. Laszlo Jamf was a Pavlovian psychologist who sought to condition an infant (Tyrone Slothrop), but previous attempts at such experiments brought in too much subjectivity. How can you quantitatively measure fear (as a previous experiment had attempted)? Dr. Jamf, therefore, decided that his indicator would be the erection of a male infant. Fear is subjective, "but a hardon, that's either there, or it isn't. Binary, elegant. The job of observing it can even be done by a student".
Unconditioned stimulus = stroking penis with antiseptic cotton swab.
Unconditioned response = hardon.
Conditioned stimulus = x.
Conditioned response = hardon whenever x is present, stroking is no longer necessary, all you need is that x.
But what is x? It is the "Mystery Stimulus" that has fascinated generations of behavioral-pyschologists, and that is the whole point of the experiment. Traditionally, the subject of the experiment would have to be de-conditioned. Dr. Jamf would have to "extinguish" the hardon reflex he'd built up. This is where things get tricky: "...we must also realize that extinction can proceed beyond the point of reducing a reflex to zero. We cannot therefore judge the degree of extinction only by the magnitude of the reflex or its absence, since there can still be a silent extinction beyond the zero."
Apparently, Dr. Jamf extinguished only to the point of zero, ignoring the "silent extinction beyond the zero". Lt. Tyrone Slothrop was discovered many years later (now a man) to be quite sexually active. He even has a map on which he has marked his sexual conquests. Oddly, the marked points on the map happen to coincide identically with V-2 rocket impact sites! This is what seems to indicate some sort of latent conditioned response in Slothrop... Naturally, there is all sorts of speculation as to how this could be.
Further complicating matters, apparently the list of sexual conquests/rocket impact sites are described by a Poisson Distribution, a probability density function (one that tends to pop up in nature quite often).
So, yes, Gravity's Rainbow has its share of interesting ideas, existing beside all of its beautiful nonsensical prose. Just one interesting note concerning the etymology of "Jamf": apparently it is derived from an abbreviation of "jive-ass mother-fucker" which is said to have originated with Charlie Parker. Naturally, this lets me see Dr. Lazlo Jamf in a substantially different, and much less trustworthy, light...
And just for fun, some more quotes, further illustrating my fascination with how Pynchon's language is structured:
Posted by Mark on July 21, 2002 at 10:53 PM .: link :.
Thursday, July 18, 2002
Footnotes from Beyond the Zero, Part I
Perhaps a sign of literary masochism, I've taken to reading the infamous rainbow. To be perfectly honest, I'm in way over my head. Is it too much to hope that the novel is deliberately nonsensical? That I don't understand what is going on half the time because I'm actually not supposed to? Maybe. I don't know, and I'm not sure I ever will. However, for whatever reason, there is one thing I'm really enjoying about the novel, and that is the footnotes, or, rather, the lack therof. Pynchon salts his prose with words, concepts, and ideas that are vague and esoteric; they require a certain amount of work in order to be understood. Though there is one resource that makes this exercise thankfully simpler, I have enjoyed going through these references and figuring them out. So, kind of as a way to keep track of what I've learned, I'll be posting whatever interesting tidbits I've found. Heres to hoping you find this interesting...
Posted by Mark on July 18, 2002 at 10:39 PM .: link :.
Monday, March 18, 2002
Evil Rodent Empire?
The Story of George by James Grimmelmann : An interesting Median Strip piece concerning the design and construction of the famous Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Its a great read. Disney is notorius for pissing off its employees (or, rather, ex-employees) once their job is done. There is a legion of graphic artists whose grievances against Disney are great; this is perhaps why you see so many wierd hidden offences in their animated movies (such as this new one, pointed out by xmark). There is also rumoured to be a painting in the Magic Kingdom bearing a cartoon Hitler amidst a large ensemble of Disney characters. In relation to the post below, grenville pointed out that Mirimax (owned by Disney) is buying up riights to Hong Kong films, changing the stories, dubbing, editing, bastardising and then suing anyone who releases the original art. There is an online petition, but I doubt it would do any good...
Posted by Mark on March 18, 2002 at 01:36 PM .: link :.
Monday, January 21, 2002
Why be a Magician?
alan moore: magician is a site with various odds and ends written by Moore. I found most of it to be interesting. It includes some loose plans for a comic-book Grimoire, an article explaining why he became a magician, and some interesting correspondance with Dave Sim (creator of the long running independant Cerebus comic that I wrote about a while back).
Completely unrelated: Steven Den Best comments on the timely release of the new Ridley Scott directed, Josh Hartnett vehicle, Black Hawk Down.
Posted by Mark on January 21, 2002 at 01:55 PM .: link :.
Monday, January 14, 2002
Radio Diaries is a collection of National Public Radio programs that were designed to give a voice to people not typically represented in the public forum. Particularly interesting are the prison stories (2001's main theme), though the audio journals of teenagers, workers, and the elderly are good as well.
This past year, five inmates, four correctional officers and a judge were given tape recorders. For six months, the diarists kept audio journals and recorded the sounds and scenes of everyday life behind bars: shakedowns, new inmate arrivals, roll call, monthly family visits, meals at the chow hall, and quiet moments late at night inside a cell. The series is an intimate and surprising audio portrait of prison life.The series aired in on NPR's All Things Considered in January 2001.
Posted by Mark on January 14, 2002 at 10:45 AM .: link :.
Thursday, January 10, 2002
THEY are coming!
The Day They Let Bernard Leave by John Robinson (.pdf file) : A cryptic and ambiguous short story in which a man named Bernard has a very strange day. Everyone is staring at him; even, sometimes, being nice to him. Strange. Anyway, its a good read if you don't mind the ambiguity of it all. Is Bernard as lucky as everyone thinks? I'm not so sure. Anyway, Robinson is an interesting fellow, known to many as "Widgett". He runs a website called, NeedCoffee.com which is quite an interesting mix (not unlike Kaedrin, but more interesting and older:). He also has a production company called One Tusk and recently pubished a book of poetry called Love Letters Unsent to People Unmet. Check it out. Another story by Robinson: Necrogarchy, another interesting offering...
Sorry for the lack of updating lately. Things got a bit busy during the holiday season, plus I can't seem to run into much in the way of interesting stuff lately, so you'll have to bear with me. I did get my Best of 2000 movies list up (yes, thats 2000, its a year late, I know). Lets see, what else? I've been spending a lot of time at Everything2 lately. Its a fun place.
Posted by Mark on January 10, 2002 at 09:06 AM .: link :.
Thursday, December 20, 2001
Dialogue on Film and Philosophy by Ulf Wilhelmsson (in rich text format) : What if, say, Quentin Tarantino met Aristotle, Herakleit, Plato, Jean-Paul Sartre, David Hume, Immanuel Kant and other famous philosophers. What would it be like if they all sat down and had a conversation on film and philosophy? Ulf Wilhelmsson attempts to expore these ideas in this interesting little essay. Much of it plays out like an informative introduction to various philosophies, as the aformentioned participants spout off about their particular areas of interest and eventually apply them to film. Obviously, this is much more entertaining if you are at least somewhat familiar with the various participants. Most of the philosophers are very well known, but I'd be suprised if many people knew all of the film scholars mentioned (Wilhelmsson thoughtfully includes explainations for the more obscure folks that show up). Theres also a bit of a lighthearted tone that lets some of the philosophers even get rowdy (at one point St Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle yell "Tabula Rasa!" in unison). Interesting reading. [via Wood S Lot]
Posted by Mark on December 20, 2001 at 10:43 AM .: link :.
Friday, December 07, 2001
Fellowship of the War
Tolkien on Homeland Defense by Chris Mooney : An interesting article that draws parallels between Tolkien's classic Lord of the Rings trilogy and the 9/11 tragedy. Mooney cites two passages from Fellowship of the Ring that are particularly poignant and resonate with our current situation. The first is an exchange between Frodo and the elf leader Gildor, when they meet jus