Arts & Letters

The Two Kinds of Movie

I was listening a Bulwark Goes to Hollywood podcast episode in which three movie writers talk about their favorite film books, and I couldn’t help but think of what I’d put on such a list. In the spirit of arranging my interests in parallel, I’ve been reading a lot of books about movies over the last few years, and the one that immediately leaps to mind is Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman.

Which Lie Did I Tell book cover

As an example of the book’s insights, here’s Goldman on the two kinds of movies:

There are really two kinds of flicks – what we now call generic Hollywood movies, and what we now call Independent films.

Hollywood films – and this is crucial to screenwriters – all have in common this: they want to tell us truths we already know or a falsehood we want to believe in.

Hollywood films reinforce, reassure.

Independent films, which used to be called “art” films, have a different agenda. They want to tell us things we don’t want to know.

Independent films unsettle.

A little reductive, to be sure, and we could quibble about the details all day if we want, but it’s at least an interesting dichotomy he’s suggesting, and the way he spins it out contains one of the better explanations for why Independent Films tend to do poorly with audiences:

Famous cartoon from fifty years back. A couple are at the original run of Death of a Salesman. The man turns to the woman, here’s what he says: “I’ll get you for this!”

The point is that most of us work all day, often at something we don’t much love anymore but we do it till we drop. At the end of our average days, we want peace, we want relaxation, maybe a bite of food, a few kind words.

We do not want to watch Willy Loman’s suicide.

What we are really dealing with when we talk of the two Hollywoods is audience size.

… Most people want to be told nice things. I cannot repeat that too often to anyone who wants to screenwrite for a living. You can be Bergman if you have the talent, you can tell sad human stories – but do not expect Mr. Time Warner to give you $100 million to make your movie.

Again, plenty to quibble with here. I’d argue that there are lots of crossover flicks, whether it be what Goldman calls a “Hollywood” flick that manages to tell us something we don’t want to know or an “Independent” movie that tells us something we want to believe in, that somehow manage to find a huge audience. Goldman would later touch on this topic again in a famous essay called “Who killed Hollywood?”

I’m not talking here about the difference between entertainment and art. Hollywood films can be, and often are, art. And many, if not most, independent films are boring.

I suspect many would like to upgrade their “quibbles” to something stronger at this point, but I can appreciate this point of view. Goldman’s books are highly recommended and would be number one on my list of great books about movies. I can save the full list for another post, but I should probably get to finishing off the 1978 Project, shouldn’t I?

Project Hail Mary

Andy Weir first rose to prominence with his self-published novel of an astronaut stranded on Mars, The Martian. It caught on with readers, eventually got picked up by a big publisher and even adapted into a pretty great Ridley Scott movie. He followed that book up with the moon-based Artemis, a novel that clearly didn’t hang together as well as The Martian, but had its moments I guess. Still, the Sophomore Slump felt real. Now we come to Project Hail Mary, Weir’s third book and I’m happy to report that it represents something of a return to form.

Earth’s sun is dimming and the cause is traced back to a microscopic life form (dubbed the Astrophage) that lives on the sun and uses its energy to migrate to Venus. The dimming effect is accelerating and will eventually cause catastrophic changes on earth and potentially wipe out humanity. What’s more, most of our neighboring stars are also dimming… except for Tau Ceti, a star that’s twelve light-years from earth. Project Hail Mary is quickly assembled to visit Tau Ceti, devise a solution to the Astrophage, and save all humankind. We learn all of this in flashback, as Ryland Grace, a middle-school science teacher wakes up with a nasty case of amnesia. He quickly deduces that he’s on a spaceship and his memories start to come back. Will Grace be able to find a solution in time to save Earth?

Some minor spoilers up there, I guess, but there’s lots more to this story that I will try not to spoil too much. As with The Martian this is a novel about a lone astronaut sciencing the shit out of things to save himself and in this case, humanity. The science is handled well and in detail. It’s not diamond hard science fiction that’s difficult to understand, it’s actually quite accessible and while sometimes tedious for the characters, mostly not for us readers. I suppose it could wear you down though, especially when you get towards the end of the story and you know where it’s going, but Weir puts Grace through the paces as he attempts to find a needle in a haystack. Still, it’s well drawn and clearly explained. All of which serves to keep the story grounded, even when Grace does some crazy stuff to, for example, snag a sample of a potential Astrophage solution.

The technology is mostly present-day stuff. Since Project Hail Mary is humanity’s last hope, the plan relies on old, well-established technology that’s pretty much guaranteed not to fail. Except, of course, for the new spin drive propulsion system that can help the ship traverse interstellar distances. But here Weir finds a clever solution.

Indeed, one of the impressive things about the book is that Weir takes one counterfactual, the Astrophage, and once established, he puts it through a whole battery of extrapolations that have far and wide implications. There’s lots of things in this book that are surprising, but at their core, they are explained by a relatively simple microorganism. It speaks to one of Science Fiction’s broad strengths. Establish something simple and relatively innocuous, then tease out the implications until things start to get weird. Weir also manages to weave this sort of thing into the plot too, which shows some storytelling chops.

It’s hard to get into the rest of the story without getting into spoiler territory, so I’ll leave it at that. Fans of The Martian will certainly enjoy this, though it may come off a bit samey. Weir is great at presenting complicated science in an accessible manner, but he’s not exactly a prose stylist. Characterization isn’t a strong suit either. Ryland Grace is your typical competent man SF hero (much like Mark Watney from The Martian). Weir does attempt to flesh him out a bit, especially with a late revelation that didn’t quite sit right with me, but he’s still a pretty familiar SF archetype. As with a lot of older SF, the ideas at the core of the story are the real hero. It does a great job evoking that vaunted sense of wonder that’s at the core of SF. That’s what makes a book like this work, and it’s the sort of thing that’s missing from a lot of modern SF.

Modern SF has a tendency towards extreme cynicism, dysfunction, angst, and oppression, and fans of that will likely see this book, with its optimism in the face of disaster, competence, and happy ending, as jejune and unsophisticated. I found it to be a breath of fresh air and ultimately loved the book, flaws and all. It’s a throwback SF vision that we could probably use more of these days.

Hugo Awards Season 2021

The 2021 Hugo Awards finalists were announced earlier this week, so it’s time for the requisite grumbles and bellyaches. I’ve largely fallen off the Hugo bandwagon and I’m probably not going to play along this year, but I still find the process interesting. Congrats to all the nominees!

Best Novel

The Best Novel ballot is a pretty good illustration of why I’m not reading/voting this year. This isn’t to say they’re bad novels or anything, but there’s this tendency in the Hugo awards where certain authors catch on and get nominated year after year. One of the reasons I followed along with the Hugos (even before actively participating) was that they introduced me to new or different work. They got me out of my comfort zone. But they go in waves, and if a set of authors you don’t care for gets hot, then interest fades.

This year’s nominees have mostly been nominated recently, if they haven’t won recently. Four have had finalists in the last few years. One of the others (Network Effect by Martha Wells) is new to the Best Novel ballot, but it’s a sequel to a series of novellas which have entries that have been nominated and won. For the record, that’s the only one I’ve already read, and I really enjoy that series, so it’s a well deserved nomination in my book. The other is the second novel by an author whose first novel won the award in 2005. That’s also one that I might actually get to someday, award or no award. If you expand name recognition to the other categories, it gets even worse.

I suspect in a couple years I’ll take a look and see a bunch of new folks, at which point I might join in again. The genre is much larger these days, with much more volume than in the earlier days of fandom, so you’d think that the tendency for repeat names would be more limited now, but I guess the awards are more representative of the voters than the genre itself. For now, I’ll continue to follow the news, but not read along…

Short Fiction

Even here, I see a lot of familiar names, and it’s also kinda funny that every nominated novella is published by Tor.com. Is no one else publishing novellas? In theory, I like the idea of reading a bunch of short fiction – it’s could be like a sampler platter of what’s going on in SF. But I’m almost invariably disappointed in these categories. I’m sure there’s some good stuff in there, but the bevy of familiar names don’t interest me that much.

Best Series

This award continues to baffle. In theory, it could be used to recognize series that have built up a readership over time and become more than the sum of its parts. Or something like that. In practice, it seems to be dominated by authors and series that also get best novel nominations. For instance, two of this year’s best series nominees also have an entry on the best novel ballot. On the other hand, there are some series here that do seem to fit the bill. Of course, there’s also the logistical challenge of this award. How can anyone have enough time to read all these series? I know this year’s voting period is much longer than normal (thanks Pandemic!), but it’s still got to be impossible to vote for this, unless you’ve already read most of the nominees (or if you only give each series a cursory read).

Best Dramatic Presentation

This award is always very strange, and it features this year’s weirdest finalist: what the hell is Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga doing on this list? The list is otherwise pretty decent, though there’s obviously lots of smaller fare that the voters never seem to go for. Pour one out for the likes of: Possessor, The Vast of Night, Color Out of Space, Archive, and The Wolf of Snow Hollow (as usual, some of these may have eligibility issues due to weird distribution dates, but still). Also, how did The Invisible Man not garner a nom? It’s so squarely within the voter’s usual wheelhouse…

Other Thoughts on the 2021 Hugo Awards

I’m perhaps being overly grumpy in this post. Congrats to all the nominees. I would still encourage folks to play along with the Hugo Awards at some point (2021 or not), as I’ve always found it interesting, even when I don’t love the books. That said, I know enough about this year’s crop to know that I probably won’t enjoy a lot of them, so I’m opting out. I’ll still be curious to see who wins and what the awards look like next year though.

Master of the Revels

In the English royal household, the Master of the Revels was responsible for overseeing royal festivities (aka revels) and stage censorship. An important role in the time of William Shakespeare, which turns out to be a key DTAP (Destination Time And Place) in Nicole Galland’s follow-up to The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., aptly titled Master of the Revels. Galland had collaborated with Neal Stephenson on the first book, but took this sequel on by herself. I’m always curious about how authors collaborate on books with shared authorship, but it seems like in the case of D.O.D.O., Galland had done the bulk of the writing, with Stephenson adding some technical flavor and overarching story bits. As such, this sequel retains the feel of the first book, while progressing the story forward.

Master of the Revels

The story picks up right where D.O.D.O. left off. Our small group of intrepid heros have set up a small operation to counter the nefarious Irish witch Gráinne, who intends to utilize D.O.D.O. time-travel resources to reverse the evolution of all modern technology (and thus allow magic to be more freely practiced in modern times). Her travels take us to Renaissance Italy, feudal Japan, and of course, Jacobean England. It’s kinda hard to talk about the plot here without giving some stuff away or explaining what was covered in the previous book, so I’ll just leave it at that.

The story is told in an epistolary format, with everything being after-action reports, chat transcripts, bureaucratic documentation with acronyms galore, and so on. Much of the sense of administrative humor is retained, and it’s basically just a lot of fun to be hanging out with these characters again. We also get a few new characters, including Robin Lyons, Tristan’s sister and noted Shakespeare nerd, who is naturally recruited to infiltrate the office of the Master of Revels. She fits right in, and makes good friends with the Shakespeare brothers (in particular Bill’s younger and less famous brother Ned, who is another great addition to the cast). Alas, some of the original characters, notably Tristan himself, are sidelined for the majority of the book, but it all works well enough.

As the title of the book indicates, this English bits comprises the bulk of the story, so any Shakespeare nerds would really enjoy this. Actually, history nerds in general will get a kick out of this series. Lots of historical figures are mentioned, including the actual Master of the Revels during Shakespeare’s time, Edmund Tilney, amongst other actors in the troupe. The other DTAPs are a little less detailed, though Leonardo Da Vinci is a key to one of them…

Gráinne makes for a fun villain, though I must admit that I don’t really get how her plan will work. The limitations of magic that have been set in the D.O.D.O. universe are such that her task seems impossible or at least, inadvisable. To be sure, the stakes are clear and our heroes’ actions to counter Gráinne make sense, it’s just the overarching strategy here that I’m not following. Such is the way with a lot of time-travel stories though, and this has the added complexity of quantum physics and multiverses too, which help make the hand-waving plot machinations successful (and which I maintain is a clever sort of explanation for the way magic works in this universe). To be sure, I’m still having a lot of fun with these books, even if they are a little too focused on more narrow episodes rather than any sorta grand plan.

As such, this story is resolved satisfactorily, but I don’t know that the series has progressed very much… and yet, I’m pretty excited to see where we go next, which is a good sign. As yet, I’m not sure if there actually will be a third book, but it seems likely and from interviews, the notion of a trilogy has been thrown out there, so I’m hoping we’ll get a third book at some point. In the meantime, if you enjoyed D.O.D.O., this will scratch that itch (and even though Stephenson’s involvement is minimal, it might tide you over until Termination Shock comes out).

Stephenson’s Termination Shock

This week saw the announcement of Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Termination Shock. It’s an Easter miracle! We’re big fans of Stephenson here at Kaedrin and any new books are treated as events. So what’s it about?

Neal Stephenson’s sweeping, prescient new novel transports readers to a near-future world where the greenhouse effect has inexorably resulted in a whirling-dervish troposphere of superstorms, rising sea levels, global flooding, merciless heat waves, and virulent, deadly pandemics.

One man has a Big Idea for reversing global warming, a master plan perhaps best described as “elemental.” But will it work? And just as important, what are the consequences for the planet and all of humanity should it be applied?

As only Stephenson can, Termination Shock sounds a clarion alarm, ponders potential solutions and dire risks, and wraps it all together in an exhilarating, witty, mind-expanding speculative adventure.

I must admit to a bit of trepidation about Stephenson going down such a well tread path (the amount of recent science fiction addressing climate change explicitly or implicitly is high, and often quite didactic), but I’m confident that he has the tools to pull it off in a way that is entertaining and interesting. Stephenson’s tackled the environmental angle before, and managed to wrap it up in an entertaining thriller structure (in fact, it’s probably his most accessible novel).

In physics, the Termination Shock is one of the outer boundaries of the sun’s influence in the solar system, which perhaps indicates that we’re in for some space travel that the marketing blurb doesn’t mention. There is also the scare quotes around “elemental” that point to more potential scientific avenues that this will explore. As usual, hopes are high. The novel comes out on November 16, 2021.

In other Stephenson-adjacent news, I just finished the sequel to The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. and quite enjoyed it. Look for a review coming soon!

Notes on Leonardo Da Vinci

One of the more interesting books I’ve read during lockdown was Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. I have always done a good job keeping up with reviews of fiction (particularly science fiction), but I’m awful at following up on non-fiction. This despite non-fiction often covering more interesting ideas in more relevant, concrete ways. We’ll try to do Da Vinci justice here.

First up is probably the most significant takeaway from the book:

While at Windsor Castle looking at the swirling power of the “Deluge Drawings” that he made near the end of his life, I asked the curator, Martin Clayton, whether he thought Leonardo had done them as works of art or of science. Even as I spoke, I realized it was a dumb question. “I do not think that Leonardo would have made that distinction,” he replied.

Page 2

It’s worth noting that the notion of art has changed so dramatically since Da Vinci’s time that a lot of what he dealt with seems completely foreign today. His specific brand of naturalism is surely still a thing today, it’s just that it’s a much smaller proportion of art. This insight, that Da Vinci didn’t make a distinction between art and science, is one that recurs throughout the book. Take this:

…Leonardo’s injunction to begin any investigation by going to the source: “He who can go to the fountain does not go to the water-jar.”

Page 6

In these days of “out of context” journalism, going to the original source is as wise a piece of advice as ever. Over and over again, the need for immediate reporting and the bias of journalists lead us down false paths. Even once enough time has passed to figure out what really happened, the damage is done. No one reads the corrections.

Leonardo was human. The acuteness of his observational skill was not some superpower he possessed. Instead, it was a product of his own effort. That’s important, because it means that we can, if we wish, not just marvel at him but try to learn from him by pushing ourselves to look at things more curiously and intensely.

In his notebook, he described his method – almost like a trick – for closely observing a scene or object: look carefully and separately at each detail. He compared it to looking at the page of a book, which is meaningless when taken in as a whole and instead needs to be looked at word by word. Deep observation must be done in steps: “If you wish to have a sound knowledge of the forms of objects, begin with the details of them, and do not go on to the second step until you have the first well fixed in memory.”

Page 179

Another lesson we’d do well to learn. These days, everyone wants to be an immediate expert. No one wants to put in the time to actually become the expert, they just jump to what is considered “the best” and avoid everything else. Something important is lost in the process. I’m reminded of the computer scientist Peter Norvig. Frustrated by the proliferation of books with titles like “Learn Java in 24 Hours”, he wrote a book called Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years. I think Da Vinci had a similar approach.

He was constantly peppering acquaintances with the type of questions we should all learn to pose more often. “Ask Benedetto Portinari how they walk on ice in Flanders,” reads one memorable and vivid entry on a to-do list. Over the years there were scores of others: “Ask Maestro Antonio how mortars are positioned on the bastions by day or night… Find a master of hydraulics and get him to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner… Ask Maestro Giovannino how the tower of Ferrara is walled without loopholes.”

Thus Leonardo became a disciple of both experience and received wisdom. More important, he came to see that the progress of science came from a dialogue between the two. That in turn helped him realize that knowledge also came from a related dialogue: that between experiment and theory.

Page 173

More lessons to learn from Leonardo, and the notion that experience and theory are both worth pursuing is an excellent one.

Leonardo… was interested in a part-by-part analysis of the transfer of motion. Rendering each of the moving parts-ratchets, springs, gears, levers, axles, and so on- was a method to help him understand their functions and engineering principles. He used drawing as a tool for thinking. He experimented on paper and evaluated concepts by visualizing them.

Page 190


His drawings served as visual thought experiments. By rendering the mechanisms in his notebooks rather than actually constructing them, he could envision how they would work and assess whether they would achieve perpetual motion. He eventually concluded, after looking at many different methods, that none of them would. In reasoning so, he showed that, as we go through life, there is a value in trying to do such tasks as designing a perpetual-motion machine: there are some problems that we will never be able to solve, and it’s useful to understand why.

Page 196

I like the concept of “drawing as a tool for thinking”, and I see this a lot in my day job. Not only does visualizing something help with understanding it, but it makes a huge difference in communicating it out to others. One example of this sort of thing, I’d been reporting on the benefits of an effort for a couple of months. I had stated one benefit in a text bullet point, but was able to get some actual data and changed it to a graph showing a before and after. I’d been reporting the exact same information for 2 months, but no one really noticed it until I made the graph.

It’s also interesting that Leonardo found value in unsolvable tasks like perpetual motion. Again, it speaks to the expertise problem mentioned above. People want to become immediate experts, but are unwilling to approach anything if it means they might fail. Many of the outlandish things that Leonardo speculated about did come to pass, eventually:

This inability to ground his fantasies in reality has generally been regarded as one of Leonardo’s major failings. Yet in order to be a true visionary, one has to be willing to overreach and to fail some of the time. Innovation requires a reality distortion field. The things he envisioned for the future often came to pass, even if it took a few centuries. Scuba gear, flying machines, and helicopters now exist. Suction pumps now drain swamps. Along the rout of the canal that Leonardo drew there is now a major highway. Sometimes fantasies are paths to reality.

Page 354

Of course, not all of these speculations had as much of an impact as they should:

These laws of friction, and in particular the realization that friction is independent of the contact surface area, were an important discovery, but Leonardo never published them. They had to be rediscovered almost two hundred years later by the French scientific instrument maker Guillaume Amontons.  … He also devised ways to use ball bearings and roller bearings, techniques that were not commonly used until the 1800s.

Page 197

He was mainly motivated by his own curiosity. … He was more interested in pursuing knowledge than in publishing it. And even though he was collegial in his life and work, he made little effort to share his findings.

This is true for all of his studies, not just his work on anatomy. The trove of treatises that he left unpublished testifies to the unusual nature of what motivated him. He wanted to accumulate knowledge for its own sake, and for his own personal joy, rather than out of a desire to make a public name for himself as a scholar or to be part of the progress of history. … As the Leonardo scholar Charles Hope has pointed out, “He had no real understanding of the way in which the growth of knowledge was a cumulative and collaborative process.” Although he would occasionally let visitors glimpse his work, he did not seem to realize or care that the importance of research comes from its dissemination.

Page 423

Here we find yet another lesson from Da Vinci. This time, though, it’s something he was bad at that can guide us. He was ahead of his time on many things and made important discoveries… but he never published them, so they had to be rediscovered later. Sometimes for hundreds of years. I suppose this could be seen as a consequence of his ravenous curiosity. He had so much on his mind at all times that he rarely finished any one thing. But he made tons of interesting observations. Some are seemingly trivial and weird, but when we dig deeper, we find something more:

Then comes my favorite item on any Leonardo list: “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.” This is not just a random entry. He mentioned the woodpecker’s tongue again on a later page, where he described and drew the human tongue. “Make the motions of the woodpecker,” he wrote. When I first saw his entry about the woodpecker, I regarded it, as most scholars have, as an entertaining oddity – an amuse-bouche, so to speak – evidence of the eccentric nature of Leonardo’s relentless curiosity. That it indeed is. But there is more, as I discovered after pushing myself to be more like Leonardo and drill down into random curiosities. Leonardo, I realized, had become fascinated by the muscles of the tongue. All the other muscles he studied acted by pulling rather than pushing a pody part, but the tongue seemed to be an exception. This was true in humans as in other animals. The most notable example is the tongue of the woodpecker. Nobody had drawn or fully written about it before, but Leonardo with his acute ability to observe objects in motion knew that there was something to be learned from it.

On the same list, Leonardo instructed himself to describe “the jaw of the crocodile.” Once again, if we follow his curiosity, rather than merely be amused by it, we can see that he was on to an important topic. A crocodile, unlike any mammal, has a second jaw joint, which spreads out force when it snaps shut its mouth. That gives the crocodile the most forceful bite of any animal.

Page 398

His notebooks feature tons of inventions and concepts that would not be rediscovered for centuries. Just conceiving the idea was often enough for him… but then, that’s a complicated process as well:

When Leonardo drew his Vitruvian Manhe had a lot of inter-related ideas dancing in his imagination. These included the mathematical challenge of squaring the circle, the analogy between the microcosm of man and the macrocosm of earth, the human proportions to be found through anatomical studies, the geometry of squares and circles in church architecture, the transformation of geometric shapes, and a concept combining math and art that was known as “the golden ratio” or “divine proportion.”

He developed his thoughts about these topics not just from his own experience and reading; they were formulated also through conversations with friends and colleagues. Conceiving ideas was for Leonardo, as it has been throughout history for most other cross-disciplinary thinkers, a collaborative endeavor. Unlike Michaelangelo and some other anguished artists, Leonardo enjoyed being surrounded by friends, companions, students, assistants, fellow courtiers, and thinkers. In his notebooks we find scores of people with whom he wanted to discuss ideas.

This process of bouncing around thoughts and jointly formulating ideas was facilitated by hanging around a Renaissance court like the one in Milan.

… Ideas are often generated in physical gathering places where people with diverse interests encounter one another serendipitously. That is why Steve Jobs liked his buildings to have a central atrium and why the young Benjamin Franklin founded a club where the most interesting people of Philadelphia would gather every Friday. At the court of Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo found friends who could spark new ideas by rubbing together their diverse passions.

Pages 158-159

The funny thing about Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man? It also wasn’t really published formally, it’s just a sketch in his notebook. And yet it’s one of the most famous pieces of art ever conceived. And it was a sorta collaboration, or perhaps competition would be more accurate. These days, when someone says Vitruvian Man, we immediately attribute it to Leonardo, but it’s actually a general idea that many artists tackled.

Given Leonardo’s tendency towards collaboration, I have to wonder how many things resulted that we have no idea were inspired by him. As it turns out, attribution is a particularly thorny topic for artists of this time period. They didn’t sign their paintings, so things get very complicated:

There is enough evidence, I think, to support an attribution, in whole or in part, to Leonardo: the use of a walnut panel similar in grain to that of Lady with an Ermine , the existence of some court sonnets that seem to refer to his painting such a work, and the fact that some aspects of the painting have a beauty worthy of the master. Perhaps it was a collaborative work of his studio, produced to fulfill a ducal commission, with some involvement from Leonardo’s brush but not his heart and soul.

Page 248

What is most interesting about the portrait is Silverman’s quest to prove that it was by Leonardo. Like most artists of his time, Leonardo never signed his works nor kept a record of them. So the question of authentication – figuring out which truly deserve to be called autograph works by Leonardo – becomes yet another fascinating aspect of grappling with his genius. In the case of the portrait that Silverman bought, the saga involved a combination of detective work, technical wizardry, historical research, and connoisseurship. The interdisciplinary effort, which wove together art and science, was worthy of Leonardo, who would have appreciated  the interplay between those who love the humanities and those who love technology.

Page 250

One of the veils blurring our knowledge of Leonardo is the mystery surrounding the authenticity and dates of some of his paintings, including ones we think are lost and others we think are finds. Like most artist-craftsmen of his era, he did not sign his work. Although he copiously documented trivial items in his notebooks, including the amount he spent on food and on Salai’s clothes, he did not record what he was painting, what he had completed, and where his works went. For some paintings we have detailed contracts and disputes to inform us; for others we have to rely on a snippet from the sometimes reliable Vasari or other early chronicles.

Page 325

… we need to look at copies done by his followers to envision works now lost, such as the Battle of Anghiari, and to analyze what were thought to be works by his followers to see if they might actually be autograph Leonardos. These endeavors can be frustrating, but even when they do not produce certainty, they can lead to a better understanding of Leonardo, as we saw in the case of La Bella Principessa.

Page 325

In 2011 a newly rediscovered painting by Leonardo surprised the art world. Each decade, a dozen or so pieces are proposed or pushed as having a reasonable claim to be previously unknown Leonardos, but only twice before in modern times had such assertions ended up generally accepted

Page 329

One of the striking things about Da Vinci is just how little work is actually attributed to him. And yet, two of his paintings (The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper) are arguably the most famous paintings ever made. There is, of course, lots more of interest in the book, but I’ll leave you with a concept that he invented, called Sfumato:

The term sfumato derives from the Italian word for “smoke,” or more precisely the dissipation and gradual vanishing of smoke into the air. “Your shadows and lights should be blended without lines or borders in the manner of smoke losing itself in the air,” he wrote in a series of maxims for young painters. From the eyes of his angel in Baptism of Christ to the smile of the Mona Lisa, the blurred and smoke-veiled edges allow a role for our own imagination. With no sharp lines, enigmatic glances and smiles can flicker mysteriously.

Page 41

Sfumato is not merely a technique for modeling reality more accurately in a painting. It is an analogy for the blurry distinction between the known and the mysterious, one of the core themes of Leonardo’s life. Just as he blurred the boundaries between art and science, he did so to the boundaries between reality and fantasy, between experience an mystery, between objects and their surroundings.

Page 270

SF Book Review – Part 36: The Puppet Masters and Moar

Now that we’ve gotten the Movie Awards and various year-end recaps out of the way, it’s time to catch up on some science fiction reading. I did cover a few things already during Vintage SF Month, but I’ve been sorta slacking on the SF front of late. Still, I’ve read some things lately that are interesting enough.

The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein – I read this towards the end of Vintage SF Month but never got around to doing a full writeup. Slug-like alien parasites have arrived on earth, attached themselves to people’s backs, taken control of their nervous systems in order to ride them like a puppet master. Two secret agents from a clandestine US intelligence agency have been sent to a small town to investigate a flying saucer sighting (and the disappearance of other government agents) and discover the plot.

The Puppet Masters book cover

If this sounds a little familiar, that’s because it’s similar in content and theme to Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It was published a few years after Heinlein’s novel, yet it became far more famous thanks to a classic film adaptation (or two). Heinlein’s novel did finally get a schlocky film adaptation in the 90s, but I don’t remember thinking it was anything special (I do want to revisit it though) and really, it doesn’t get at some of the more out-there ideas in Heinlein’s novel.

Written in 1951, Heinlein was probing and echoing the paranoia and fear that drove the Red Scare, explicitly drawing comparisons between the mind-controlling parasites and Soviet communists. Still, much of this is really just an excuse for solidly paced storytelling and explorations of wacky ideas. Some of this has to do with the puppet masters themselves, but much of it is indirectly explored as part of the setting. You get the usual ray guns and flying car tropes, Heinlein reprises his infamous “the door dilated” line, and so on. There’s so more out-there notions too, like the notion of marriage being nothing more than a contract (and one that is frequently limited to short terms).

The fight against the puppet masters involves lots of common sense maneuvering between both sides, though even that gets a bit wacky because Heinlein posits that the best way to fight the parasites is to normalize nudity (if you’re nude, you can’t hide the parasite, you see – totally not a perverted idea at all). Still, the pacing is good and each step makes sense, even if a couple stray a bit far afield.

One conversation towards the end felt particularly fitting: someone speculates that all of the measures they’re taking to fight the Puppet Masters won’t go away overnight, or probably ever. Because we won’t be able to guarantee that every parasite has been eradicated, all of those protections will have to remain in place in one way or another. Fortunately, our battle with Covid 19 doesn’t involve some of these extreme measures, but it does appear to be here to stay.

All in all, it’s a solid little book, perhaps middle tier Heinlein. I can see why it wasn’t immediately jumped on for a film adaptation, but it’s a fun read for sure.


Masquerade in Lodi by Lois McMaster Bujold – The 9th novella in Bujold’s Penric & Desdemona series, though in terms of the internal chronology of the series, it falls somewhere in the middle. This one finds Pen & Des trying to hunt down an ascendant demon and a shipwrecked madman with the help of various locals from the canal town of Lodi (think Venice). It’s got the usual twists and turns one can expect from this series, and I always enjoy spending time with Pen & Des (and the ever expanding cast of characters in their orbit). The series as a whole is consistently great and highly recommended.


Into the Black by Evan Currie – The story of the human spacecraft Odyssey and her crew as they embark on their maiden voyage… and almost immediately get caught up in an interstellar war. It’s a nice little military SF tale with some space opera elements, I found myself thinking it resembled Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet Series. This is only the first novel in Currie’s series, so it hasn’t quite built up the same level of enjoyment just yet, but I could see it getting there. It’s not doing anything new, to be sure, but it’s enjoyable and interesting in its own way. I will probably revisit the series at some point.


The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner – The King’s chief scholar, called The Magus, has found the site of an ancient treasure. Said treasure is guarded by a series of locks and countermeasures that require the skills of a good thief. It just so happens that Gen has recently been imprisoned because of his excellent thieving skills. The Magus recruits Gen and they set off on a quest to find the secure the treasure for the king.

Short and sweet, this might bog down a tad in the middle, and while I wasn’t entirely sure I loved the characters at first, they grew on me. There’s a good setup and premise for sure, but some of the journey is a bit perfunctory. I wasn’t especially engaged by long segments explaining the mythology of this world, and much of it seemed extraneous. However, by the time it ended, I was fully onboard, and actually kinda excited for the next book in the series. I found this because Lois McMaster Bujold posted something about it on Goodreads, and she seemed to indicate that the series gets better as it goes.

Vintage Science Fiction Month: The Lincoln Hunters

Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.

In The Lincoln Hunters, time travel exists for people 700 years in the future, but it is primarily used for historical information gathering purposes and museum-like desires to preserve same. Ben Steward is a Character; basically a time-traveling agent who acts as if he’s a member of the time-period he’s visiting so as to facilitate whatever history-recording task he may have. His latest mission: attend and record Abraham Lincoln’s famous Lost Speech, delivered at the Anti-Nebraska State Convention in Bloomington, Illinois on May 29, 1856.

The Lincoln Hunters book cover

On his first scouting mission, the time travel engineers overshoot their target and send him to the day after the event he’s trying to capture (rather than the day before). As such, he’s actually scouting in the aftermath of his mission. This has all sorts of implications, but from a storytelling perspective, it sets the stakes rather effectively. Steward is recognized by certain personages, he finds evidence of a snafu with the mission, and thanks to the (admittedly vague) rules of time travel, his next trip to the past (with a team of other Characters set to record Lincoln’s speech) is now time-bound because the same person cannot inhabit the same time at the, uh, same time.

It’s an effective setup, and author Wilson Tucker mostly plays it as a straight adventure story with some SF complications. Alas, this does represent a bit of a lost opportunity, as there’s a lot of thematic potential here that goes unexplored. For that matter, even the time travel mechanics are a little on the vague side. There is, of course, plenty of info-dumping up front, such as this bit explaining why Characters are taught the history leading up to their arrival, but not anything after:

“…the abstract ceased abruptly as near as possible to the target date itself. That was standard operating procedure designed to protect the Character and the assignment. It would not do for a man in the field to know the events of coming weeks or even years – his tongue might slip. To retain his value as a Character, he must be as wise, and as ignorant as the local people around him.”

The Lincoln Hunters (page 30)

However, as the story progresses, the exploration of time-travel mechanics gets left behind, instead relying on more vague assertions that something bad will happen if they don’t make it back home in time, follow certain other strict rules, etc… All well and good for the story and pacing, but it might leave something to be desired from a rigor standpoint.

There are plenty of fun little historical asides to be had, of course, such as this one:

“… He left a short time ago, to record a New Year’s Eve celebration in the year 2000, O.N. A place called Times Square. The client wishes to determine whether the century began with 2000, or 2001.”

The Lincoln Hunters (page 23)

Remember the pedants insisting that the century didn’t really start until 2001? It’s funny that Tucker anticipated that debate 40+ years earlier. Another fun bit of trivia is that one of the characters, Bobby Bloch, is actually named after Robert Bloch, a friend of Tucker’s and a fellow author who was about to become famous for writing a little novel called Psycho. This practice of including a friend’s name in your text as an in-joke is actually called Tuckerization, named after Tucker himself. But I digress…

It’s also worth noting that Lincoln’s Lost Speech is a real and seemingly pivotal event. We really don’t know the exact contents of the speech, so it would be an enticing destination for future historians. What we do know is that it sits at the fulcrum of several key historical events: the dissolution of the Whig party, the formation of the Republican party, Lincoln’s ascendency to the presidency, and eventually the Civil War itself. Tucker embeds lots of other real historical figures into the story as well, even including more obscure people like Owen Lovejoy (who Steward seems to have run afoul of in his, uh, future trip to the past).

Lincoln’s lost speech and the themes it presumably emphasized stand in stark contrast to the future that Tucker presents, but the comparison is mostly left as an exercise for the reader. The future appears to be very regimented and even includes references to things like “labor camps”, which seems like a ripe target for a more extended exploration of the analogy between Lincoln’s time and the future. Alas, like time-travel itself, this mostly takes a back seat to what essentially amounts to an adventure story. It’s there and I certainly managed to connect the dots, but Tucker could have probably squeezed more juice out of this premise without sacrificing much in the way of pacing or excitement.

For its part, the adventure plot is reasonably well done. Tucker sets up a few things during the scouting mission that come to fruition in the mission proper, and there’s always something satisfying about puzzle pieces coming together in that way. That said, it’s not a particularly complicated puzzle, and the ultimate ending leaves something to be desired. You might get some small hits of that vaunted “sense of wonder” that makes SF so fun, but it’s not going to blow you away either.

The Lincoln Hunters is a fun little time travel story. Short and sweet, it doesn’t have much explicit depth, but it kept me reasonably entertained for its short (less than 200 page) length. I can’t say as though it ranks among my favorite time-travel stories, but it has its moments, and folks familiar with the time-period might get an extra kick out of it. As such, it is an interesting exhibit in the “Science Fiction geeks often turn into history buffs” wing of the genre.

Vintage Science Fiction Month: Worlds of the Imperium

Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.

Keith Laumer is most famous for his series about the beleaguered diplomat Retief, which I think are a lot of fun, but he has a few other series that are well regarded too. Worlds of the Imperium is the first in a series of stories about parallel worlds explored by the Imperium, a government on one such alternate earth.

Worlds of the Imperium book cover

This first installment begins with the kidnapping of one Brion Bayard, an American diplomat visiting Stockholm. Laumer has a thing for diplomat protagonists, having served in the US Foreign Service himself. They say write what you know, so like Sturgeon and bulldozers, Laumer wrote about diplomats. Anyway, Bayard is whisked away in a strange vehicle and subjected to questioning about rudimentary history. As it turns out, he’s been kidnapped by the Imperium, a government from an alternate timeline that has developed a method of travel to alternate universes.

Thus far, they’ve only found two that were inhabitable (in others, earth had destroyed itself or never developed civilization in the first place). One is Bayard’s home (which appears to be our timeline), and the other features an earth ruled by a vicious dictator who has declared war on the Imperium. That dictator’s name happens to be… Brion Bayard. Can the Imperium convince Bayard to travel to the third timeline, impersonate the dictator, and halt the war? Spoiler alert: they can. But can Bayard succeed? That’s the rub.

The setup is all typical exposition-heavy SF info-dumping, but once the story proper gets going, it turns into more of a twisty espionage thriller. It helps that the info-dumping and alternate reality concept are pretty well done (if perhaps a bit elementary by today’s standards, I’m guessing it was more remarkable in its time). It’s very short and snappy, not wasting much time moving from one bit to the next, so even the info-dumps aren’t a real strain.

This might leave you wanting more in terms of characterization though, as the only person we really get to know at all is Bayard himself. He’s got a sharp and cynical edge to him that is well suited to his mission, but other aspects are left unexplored. There’s a perfunctory romantic angle that is simply tacked on and it feels like Bayard gets over his kidnapping and the implied permanent exile from his home a little too easily (did he have no attachments at home? No family? Friends?) Wait, I just realized that the government of the Imperium is based in Stockholm and Bayard is bonding with his kidnappers… this is surely not a coincidence. Anyways, in general, a lack of characterization doesn’t bother me much, so long as you make up for it with something else, which Laumer certainly manages.

It’s a fun, pulpy espionage thriller with a few interesting twists and turns. It might not get you thinking grand thoughts about the nature of the universe (though I suppose the SFnal concepts are interesting enough and well thought out, especially for its time), but it will keep you thoroughly entertained for the few hours it takes to read. If you’re looking to introduce yourself to Laumer, though, I’d recommend picking up the Retief! collection (there’s that exclamation point in the title again, something we don’t see much these days – maybe modern SF would be more fun if people wrote more stories that warranted a title with an exclamation point) before this. They’re entertaining stories too, and they also more prominently feature Laumer’s over-the-top sense of humor. Still, I wouldn’t mind visiting the Imperium again at some point, which is usually a good sign.

Vintage Science Fiction Month: Killdozer!

Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.

Say it with me: Killdozer! Don’t forget the exclamation point. It’s an evocative name for a story. Just filled with schlocky potential. Depending on your point of view, it may be a tad misleading though. I mean, don’t get me wrong – it really is a story about an ancient energy being that possesses a bulldozer and goes on a rampage. It’s like a mashup of SF and slasher film, with the killer being a giant damn bulldozer.

I don’t want to spend too much time on the slasher comparison because, well, the SF part is more interesting. But I do have an inexplicable love of slashers, so really quickly: there’s a sense of a historical tragedy of the past being revisited upon the present (the energy being was part of an ancient war, got buried in some ancient island temple that gets opened up by a construction crew, at which point the war is rekindled). The killer is wearing a mask of sorts (shaped like a bulldozer – a stretch, but work with me here). The killer stalks its unsuspecting prey, picking them off one by one, sometimes using creative methods of murder. The only things that’re really missing are a holiday (not strictly necessary) and a final girl (we have to settle for a final boy, er, final middle-aged-dude, which is a bit of a bummer.)

Well maybe I should stay on this track a bit. In preparation for last year’s Vintage SF Month, I wrote a post on the intersection of Horror and Science Fiction. I’ll let that post speak for itself, but the key distinction is thus:

While both genres often portray spine-tingling confrontations with a terrifying unknown, the chief difference between them is not the events depicted, but how the response to those events is characterized. The horror or gothic response is generally one of acceptance and surrender, while science fiction’s reaction is one of rational curiosity. To drastically simplify the sitation: horror thrives in a lack of understanding while science fiction sees such threats as a challenge to be overcome, a problem to be solved. These are generalizations, of course, and there are certainly exceptions and cross-genre exercises that straddle the line.

“Killdozer!” is a good example of such things. So far, I’ve leaned into the horror and action genre to describe the story, but the actual exercise of reading the story is tempered by a very Science Fictional approach. Author Theodore Sturgeon spends an inordinate amount of time detailing the minutiae of bulldozer technology and operations. And when I say “minutiae”, I mean it. Some examples:

The hoist and swing frictions and the brake linings had heated and dried themselves of the night’s condensation moisture, and she answered the controls in a way that delighted the operator in him. … Tom snapped the hoist lever back hard, and the bucket rose, letting the tractor run underneath. Tom punched the bucket trip, and the great steel jaw opened, cascading marl down on the broken hood. …

… Tom pushed the swing gear control down and pulled up on the travel. The clutches involved were jaw clutches, not frictions, so that he had to throttle down on an idle before he could make the castellations mesh.

Pages 156-157, The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon: Volume III: Killdozer!

There’s much more of that talk throughout the story. Sturgeon had a 4-F classification during WWII due to health issues, but he still contributed to the war effort, mainly by working on construction of airfields in the tropics. He became quite adept and knowledgeable of bulldozers during this period. In terms of his writing, this was an unproductive period for him, with “Killdozer!” being written right smack in the middle of several years of writers’ block (other things on his mind at the time, I guess). Sturgeon’s expertise certainly shows throughout the story, possibly to its detriment. I say “possibly” because it’s the sort of thing that really does give the story an interesting and distinct tone, especially when you consider the sensationalism involved in the premise.

I can see this sort of attention to detail turning off casual readers, and it certainly impacts pacing. However, it really does speak to the Science Fiction mindset. This is not a story where our heroes cower in fear of the seemingly haunted bulldozer. They brainstorm, they speculate, they devise clever strategies for avoiding, combatting, and eventually defeating the dozer and its mysterious driving force. This quote is the sort of thing you don’t see in much horror fiction (at least, not from people who survive!):

He was not the type of man who, when faced with something beyond his understanding, would begin to doubt his own sanity. His was a dogged insistence that what he saw and sensed was what had actually happened. In him was none of the fainting fear of madness that another, more sensitive, man might feel.

Page 131, The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon: Volume III: Killdozer!

For its part, the energy being that possesses the dozer also demonstrates intelligence, devising its own ingenious solutions to the attacks our protagonists throw its way. It’s a rational opponent, but one that can be defeated, so long as you don’t lose your own head.

Speaking of which, the group of humans has its own interesting dynamics at work. This is not a long story, but Sturgeon does make an effort to get to know each member of the team. Characters include a young Puerto Rican who doesn’t have much formal training, but does have experience as a dozer operator. Another character is older and perhaps too straightforward for his own good, but has wisdom born of experience. The most notable, though, is a rabble-rouser who has a penchant for needless back-stabbing office politics and racism (since this has been a week in which such real-world political strife has spilled over to embarrassing proportions, it’s interesting to see a character like this portrayed as a sorta secondary villain.)

It’s a fascinating story, if not one that is perhaps suited to beginners. It’s certainly not Sturgeon’s best work, but I do enjoy the contrasts it presents. There was also a TV movie made in the 70s that is apparently worth seeking out (though I feel certain that the SFnal elements would be toned down in such an adaptation). Originally published in Astounding magazine (John Campbell was a big booster of young Sturgeon), this story has appeared in all sorts of collections over the years (and even won a Retro Hugo last year), but I read it as part of The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon: Volume III: Killdozer!

The collection includes some pre-war and post-war Sturgeon stories, and it’s actually still somewhat early in his career. You can see a marked difference between the older and newer stories, with Sturgeon’s emphasis on psychological motivations and therapy emerging in the latter stories. Many of the tales portray a similar Science Fictional take on a Horror or Fantasy premise, with clever heroes that solve problems using rational problem solving.

“Killdozer!” is the standout story, but other prominent entries include “Mewhu’s Jet”, which is often seen as a precursor to Spielberg’s E.T. (though I’m not sure if that has been strictly confirmed, it makes sense), and “Memorial”, an early recognition of the danger of atomic power/bombs (Sturgeon and SF writers in general seemed to be ahead of the curve on this sort of thing). I also enjoyed stories like “Blabbermouth”, “The Chromium Helmet”, and honestly, most of the stories were worthwhile, even if Sturgeon would get better as time went on. I might recommend some of Sturgeon’s other works before this, but it’s a decent collection of stories and it showcases how a writer’s early career can evolve over time.