30 April 2018

Review: War Stories edited by Jaym Gates & Andrew Liptak

A few recent audio drama reviews from me: the sixth Doctor versus creepiness in Static; the fifth Doctor versus Nyssa the Destroyer in Kingdom of Lies; the beautifully titled Short Trips: Mel-evolent; and what you might imagine is a particular highlight... Big Finish takes on The War of the Worlds! (Except that trademark concerns forced them to call it The Martian Invasion of Earth.)


Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2014

Acquired October 2014
Read April 2018
War Stories: New Military Science Fiction
edited by Jaym Gates & Andrew Liptak

I wanted to like this collection more than I did. I finished it with the feeling that if this was the best that science fiction can do with the concept of war, it was perhaps best left alone. The stories range from near future stories of drone warfare to more fanciful tales of cyborgs and such, some set during conflict, and some dealing with its aftereffects, but I found little here that grabbed my attention. Ken Liu's "In the Loop" was an interesting take on the automation of warfare (if a trifle conservative). I did like the monitoring wasps of Mark Jacobsen's "The Wasp Keepers," a plausible enough take on how Middle Eastern "peace-keeping" might go someday. The most best story in the book was Karin Lowachee's "Enemy State," about the lover of a combat-augmented cyborg dealing with posttraumatic stress. Like, say, Cordwainer's Smith "Scanners Live in Vain," it uses bodily alteration partially as a stand-in for the mental alteration war inflicts on those who fight it, and I found it moving in parts.

Too many of the stories strained my credulity, with military technology I had a hard time believing in. I guess this is a difficulty in general of military sf, as contemporary warfare moves increasingly toward drones-- how do we maintain the human element necessary for storytelling? Many stories accomplish this by having the combat drones used human bodies and/or human minds in some integral way, but I often found this hard to buy. The AI in Susan Jane Bigelow's "The Radio," for example, had implausibly few instructions on what to do if separated from her unit.

"Invincible" by Jay Posey had the typical armored suits that go back to Starship Troopers, I guess, which felt a little trite. A few stories used these, so many that the book actually has a section devoted to them, but they began to blend together after a while. Some authors gamely tried to come up with new spins on them, like Carlos Orsi's "In Loco," but I found that story somewhat contrived, to be honest.

27 April 2018

Summer Is for Learning and LEGO

When I was a kid, there were three of us, and our mother was a stay-at-home mom. So, I am convinced it was her mission to pack us off to as many summer camps as possible. There was always the week of camping with the Boy Scouts, of course, but there was also rocketry camp, science camp, bible camp, nature camp, and LEGO robotics camp.

Outside of Boy Scout camp, these were all day camps. Go to the local high school everyday and build model rockets while learning about space. Go to some local park everyday and put pepper and soap into water for some reason. Go to the church gym everyday and make Jesus out of macaroni. Go to the woods everyday and be dared into eating leg-less daddy-long-legs. Mom got me out of the house, I learned stuff about surface tension and explosions and dirt and Father Abraham's many sons, many sons had Father Abraham.

Other than Boy Scout camp, which was probably the most fun, LEGO robotics camp was the best. This was probably like 1995 or 1996? I would have been in middle school. I was a self-taught programming whiz in those days, which is to say I taught myself QBasic with the help of a book from the library and could do pretty simple stuff on my own. My brother and I were sent off to LEGO robotics camp together, and we naturally selected each other as partners.

This was pre-LEGO Mindstorms. LEGO robotics in those days was through "Dacta," LEGO's educational line, which had their own programming language. There doesn't seem to be much out there about it on the Internet, but you could write code to test the input of various sensors, and output commands to motors. There were temperature and touch sensors, and various motors and lights and stuff. This thing here was the interface between the PC and the LEGO:
from Eurobricks

It's kind of hard to see in the picture, but the studs on that have metallic rims; the sensors and motors connected to them so data could move through. The core of the whole thing was, I believe, LEGO set 9701, the "Control Lab Building Set," which contained parts and directions for a variety of things you could do.

My kid brother and I were an amazing team; I would write the code and he would build the LEGO. We quickly moved through all the easy stuff and soon we were making the greenhouse. The greenhouse had a temperature sensor inside, so when it got too warm, the door would open; then when it got too cool, it would close up again. Here's the cover page to the directions:
from bricks.argz.com

The interior didn't really heat up, to be honest; I think we had to cheat the whole thing by squeezing the temperature sensor with our fingers. But we accomplished it together. In researching this, I've even found a bit of what I think is the actual code floating around on the Internet:
to open
tto "motora setright on
waituntil [angle5 > 16]
tto "motora off
end
to close
tto "motora seleft on
waituntil [angle5 < 1]
tto "motora off
end
to greenhouse
loop [if temp1 > 22 [open] if temp1 < 22 [close]]
end
There were directions and code for a scanner, even, which used a light sensor moving slowly across a piece of paper to feed into the computer its light/darkness bit by bit. Even for us this was too ambitious. (I should note that memories conflict on this point; Andy insists we did build the scanner, and says he remembers scanning in a picture of Mickey Mouse. But I was ten and he was eight, so I know whose recollections I trust more here.)

The next year we went back, but we were too good, and the camp director broke us up, and we accomplished much less paired with others than with each other.

I remember the LEGO sets having this air of age to them, but the LEGO wiki tells me set 9701 came out in 1995, so clearly not. Perhaps it was just that even in what was 1996-ish, the graphic design was sparse, but I guess in retrospect that was probably because it was an educational product, not available commercially, and done on the cheap in some ways.

As a result of these experiences we were so hyped up for LEGO Mindstorms when it came out a couple years later... and we were profoundly disappointed. The GUI-optimized puzzle piece code of Mindstorms was nowhere near as robust as the Dacta programming language, and we lost interest pretty quickly. Which, in retrospect, makes me feel bad, because I suspect it hadn't been a cheap buy for our parents.

But, you know, I'd had the second most fun I ever had at summer camp. (I kind of do miss programming at times.)

#579: What would your ideal summer camp be like?

26 April 2018

Review: Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy

Mass market paperback, 222 pages
Published 2000 (originally 1888)
Acquired July 2001
Previously read 2001/02(?)
Reread January 2013
Looking Backward, 2000-1887
by Edward Bellamy

No contemporary reader can enjoy Looking Backward, I suspect. I don't think it was the first utopian sleeper narrative (that curious subgenre where someone wakes up in the future and it is awesome), but it was certainly the most influential; Bellamy's book definitely inspired News from Nowhere (1891), James Ingleton (1893), Looking Within (1893), The Time Machine (1895), and The Sleeper Awakes (1898-99, rev. 1910), among many many others. Certainly this influence wasn't due to Bellamy's command of plot or character, however; instead it was because of critique of his contemporary era and his blueprint for a future one.

Like a lot of utopias, Looking Backward claims to be constructed on rational lines: "no reflection would have cut the men of your wealth-worshiping century more keenly than the suggestion that they did not know how to make money. Nevertheless that is just the verdict history has passed on them. Their system of unorganized and antagonistic industries was as absurd economically as it was morally abominable. Selfishness was their only science, and in industrial production selfishness is suicide. Competition, which is the instinct of selfishness, is another word for dissipation of energy, while combination is the secret of efficient production" (160). That's one of many critiques in the book of 1888 society, promoting the idea that as seen from the future, there is no rational justification for the present. It's now a common trope of time travel narratives (Star Trek has had a lot of fun with this over the years), but Bellamy was its popularizer (if not its originator), and it probably accounts for a lot of the novel's power.

25 April 2018

Hugos 2018: Monstress: The Blood by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

I'm back at it! Once again, I'm attempting to read all the 2018 Hugo finalists (in certain categories) and vote. I'll be running these posts on Wednesdays, since I don't use Wednesdays for comics reviews anymore. First, I'll be starting with a couple sequels to 2017 Hugo finalists that I'd already read before they were announced as 2018 Hugo finalists, beginning with the sequel to Monstress: Awakening:

Comic trade paperback, 149 pages
Published 2017 (contents: 2016-17)
Acquired and read October 2017
Monstress, Volume Two: The Blood

Writer: Marjorie Liu
Artist: Sana Takeda 
Lettering & Design: Rus Wooton

I'll be honest, I don't really follow the unspooling backstory behind Monstress. All the stuff about gods and inheritances and dead gods and spirits and Dawn Courts and Dusk Courts... it's a bit impenetrable to be honest. But that's okay, because Liu and Takeda are much more adept at carrying the reader through the human, the immediate, and the emotional. As much as we learn about the god hidden inside Meika Halfwolf, we also learn about her relationship with her mother, and her childhood with tiger-pirates(!), and her determination to figure out how everyone around her is using her and escape it. We also get her being manipulative and clever, but not as clever as she thinks she is.

We also also get more Ren Mormorian, and more of catkind in general, and we get more Kippa being adorably innocent: loved her learning to swim with the help of a shark-pirate, and then that backfiring when she came along with Meikea and Ren. Loved Ren getting pushed around because he's so small, but sticking with Meika because of a promise he swore, and then getting to use his badass nekomancer powers. Loved Ren's superior explaining the significance of being a feline:
from Monstress #7

It's not a perfect comic (man I wish I cared more about the epic fantasy backstory), but I'm enjoying it, and it's different than anything else I can remember reading, and Takeda's art is still gorgeous. Hope that Monstress runs and runs, but I also hope she goes on to do even bigger and better things now that she's had her "big break" once it's over.

24 April 2018

Review: The Transformers: Drift: Empire of Stone by Shane McCarthy, Guido Guidi, Stephen Baskerville, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2015 (contents: 2014-15)
Acquired November 2016
Read September 2017
The Transformers: Drift: Empire of Stone

Written by Shane McCarthy
Pencils by Guido Guidi
Additional Pencils by Marcelo Ferreira
Inks by Stephen Baskerville
Colors by John Paul Bove
Letters by Tom B. Long


I wasn't a very big fan of Drift when he was introduced in All Hail Megatron, finding him a bit of a stereotypical tortured-man-with-a-dark-past-and-also-he-has-swords. Except he was a robot. I really warmed to him in More than Meets the Eye, though, which used Drift's spiritual awakening in his self-titled miniseries (which I actually haven't read) to reinvent him as an optimist, creating a sort of Kirk-Spock-McCoy-esque trinity with Rodimus and Ultra Magnus. But in volume 4, Drift was exiled from the Lost Light (taking the fall for something Rodimus did), and in volume 8, Ratchet set off in search for him. Empire of Stone shows what the two get up to together, as Drift tries to discover where he fits in the universe.

I may have come to like Drift, but basically, it turns out, only when he's being written by James Roberts, because back in the hands of his creator Shane McCarthy, he's the same old dull tortured-man-with-a-dark-past-and-also-he-has-swords; McCarthy just puts in one joke to explain away the difference between his Drift and Roberts's hippy-dippy version:
Also he's a little dismissive about Roberts's take in the book's extras.
from The Transformers: Drift: Empire of Stone #1 (art by Guido Guidi & Stephen Baskerville)

Though it has some high points (I liked the somewhat dumb Decepticon that Drift and Ratchet befriend), this is a pretty standard loner action story: Drift comes to the site of an old mistake, Drift angsts a bit, Drift redeems himself, stuff blows up. The best part is Guido Guidi and Stephen Baskerville's very dependable artwork. They do a good job in making clear storytelling and sharp action sequences, even if McCarthy's writing means there's too many action sequences.

Gotta love that melodramatic narration.
from The Transformers: Drift: Empire of Stone #3 (art by Guido Guidi & Stephen Baskerville)

The best part of the book is that though by the end Drift is still too cool to be either a Decepticon or an Autobot, he is coming back to the Lost Light, so he'll soon be back in the much more capable writing hands of James Roberts.

In Two Weeks: Meanwhile, on Cybertron... Optimus Prime seeks a little bit of Punishment!

23 April 2018

Review: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Trade paperback, 356 pages
Published 2014

Acquired December 2016
Read September 2017
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice was a book with a lot of a narrative drive: you kept reading because you both wanted to know how Breq had ended up in her situation, and because you wanted to know how she would carry out her vengeance. Each of the parallel plotlines had a great hook and a lot of energy.

Ancillary Sword is weirdly energy-less. Given her own ship and sent off on a mission, Breq seems to pretty much have nothing to do beyond stick her nose into various local affairs at the planet where she and her ship (Mercy of Kalr) end up. I never really got what her purpose was. Supposedly she's helping to defend the Radch, but there are no clear stakes to Breq's mission in this book-- contrast that with the enormous stakes in Ancillary Justice. Furthermore, what she does do quickly becomes obnoxious, as Breq is smarter and more moral than everyone else in the novel, accomplishing all of her goals with an ease that soon becomes dull. Is there no one she can't outwit? Apparently. Is everyone in the Radch less principled than her? It sure seems so, deflating all tension. How did she get so good? Why make your main character a former spaceship if it has no bearing on the story?

I like Breq, I like the setting (it's very complicated, politically and culturally), I like many of the side characters, such as Seivarden (though she doesn't do much in this volume) and Kalr Five (who is awesome). But Ancillary Sword is not the best story that could have been told with them, unfortunately, and huge let-down compared to the first book.

20 April 2018

Jet Fuel Can't Melt Steel Theses

My semester is winding down. Here at UT, I'm teaching two sections of a research writing course for the first time. The entire semester is devoted to a single research project; faculty get to theme their courses how they like. I did "science and society," which is to say, students can't do science research papers, but they can do research papers on any aspect of how science is used in society. I have papers coming in about how the NFL ignores CTE research, what WALL-E teaches us about modern society, what the best method for teaching science to primary school students is, why the Church was opposed to Copernicus and Galileo, why Trump denies the existence of climate change, and so on.

I'm kind of convinced that if the students are succeeding, it's in spite of me. Teaching a course for the first time is always a bit of a crapshoot; this one has been rougher than most. A lot of the best parts of the research process don't happen in a classroom space. They happen when you notice something and chase down its significance. I haven't figured out how to teach students how to find those moments yet.

Anyway, my students are doing presentations this past week and the next one. Four to five per day, 13-17 minutes in length (supposedly, anyway). I arranged them into panels based on common themes; yesterday, there were multiple students dealing with conspiracy theories. One paper on 9/11, one paper on the moon landing, one paper on What the Health. My issue here isn't that the papers were good or bad, it was that in the Q&A afterwards that it became really obvious that the students involved were 9/11 truthers, or lunar truthers, or whatever, and many of the students in the audience were sympathetic to these claims.

My problem is that I keep asking myself, "Have I failed as a teacher of research if my students come out of the class believing in what is (to me) very obviously bullshit?" I think so. But on the other hand, I'm not sure what I could have done. But if college in general and academic writing courses in particular are meant to teach critical thinking skills, these students have been failed by someone, and I'm part of the problem.

But what would have worked? I'm not convinced standing up after the presentations and decrying my students for being foolish is a good idea. My attempts to ask probing questions during the writing process haven't done much. "Do you have peer-reviewed sources to back this up?" Now I'm worried that all I've done is reinforce poor thinking in the minds of the students who did the projects, and the students who were listening.

Maybe the answer is to ban these topics. But I'm not convinced that's it, because I think a really interesting paper could be written about these topics. I dunno. And what the students could perceive as close-mindedness might just lead them to double down on their beliefs. (The great thing about conspiracy theories is that all evidence against them can become evidence for them.) I have a lot of questions here, but no answers. How do we teach students to think critically? You can tell them whatever you want to tell them, but how do you get them to actually think?

19 April 2018

Review: Heart and Science by Wilkie Collins

Trade paperback, 381 pages
Published 1996 (contents: 1882-83)
Acquired and previously read November 2011

Reread May 2017
Heart and Science: A Story of the Present Time by Wilkie Collins
"And what did Mr. A. do next?" he [Dr. Benjulia] repeated. "He put his hand in his pocket-- he gave Miss B. a month's wages-- and he turned her out of the house. You impudent hussy, you have delayed my dinner, spoilt my mutton, and hugged me round the neck! There is your money. Go."
     With glaring eyes and gaping mouth, the cook stood looking at him, like a woman struck to stone. In a moment more, the rage burst out of her in a furious scream. She turned to the table, and snatched up a knife. Benjulia wrenched it from her hand, and dropped back into his chair completely overpowered by the success of his little joke. He did what he had never done within the memory of his oldest friend-- he burst out laughing. "This has been a holiday!" he said. "Why haven't I got somebody with me to enjoy it?" (216)
I reread this book in preparation for writing an article on it.* Like my review of six years ago, my article focuses on Mrs. Maria Gallilee, the under-discussed amateur female scientist at the center of the novel, so here I want to write for a moment about Dr. Nathan Benjulia, the vivisectionist who mostly lurks at the margins of the novel, but occasionally (as in the above passage) comes into focus. Like a lot of Victorian novelists, Wilkie Collins makes a connection between vivisection and cruelty to women, though what Benjulia has done here to his cook is much less bad than the spousal abuse in The Beth Book and Lynton Abbott's Children. Benjulia's cook is under the impression that Benjulia is in love with her; this is primarily because she's been reading Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, where (I am given to understand, having not read it myself), Pamela is a cook who marries her employer. Benjulia encourages this delusion until it reaches its climax with her "thr[owing] her arms around the doctor's neck," leading to the scene above.

I find this fascinating for a couple reasons. One is obvious: like a lot of scientists in literature, Benjulia's scientific training renders him morally deficient. Experimenting physically on live animals means that he has no qualms about experimenting emotionally on live humans. Science, thus leads to moral bankruptcy.

Another is, I think, less obvious. The novel, you might guess from the title, sets up an opposition between science and "heart": the ability to experience sympathy, which all of the novel's virtuous characters possess, sometimes to paralyzing degrees (there's a good lawyer, for example, who can't countenance cutting a flower's stem, and at one point the book's hero is aghast when someone steps on a beetle). And like so many Victorian novels, Heart and Science itself is meant to train the reader in sympathy and morality: Collins wrote it to "plead[ ] the cause of the harmless and affectionate beings of God's creation" (38). But though the novel is definitely an anti-science polemic at times (at least, as regards a certain form of 1880s science; Collins's narrator yearns for the bygone days of Faraday), it is somewhat more complicated on where "heart" might originate from. You might get it from reading this novel, but some novels will in fact lead you astray. Benjulia's cook's reading habits have given her a less accurate perception of the world than Benjulia's scientific training has given him, even though in other parts of the novel we are shown the inferiority of scientific sight compared to what we might call sympathetic sight.

Benjulia doesn't have anyone to laugh with, as he bemoans in this passage, and partially that's to blame on the kind of science he practices: Benjulia is so obsessed with professional success (as opposed to the advancement of knowledge) that he avoids society as much as possible, worried that one slip could reveal his plan of research to someone else and allow them to beat him to his hoped-for discovery in the treatment of brain disease. But there is someone who does laugh with Benjulia at this incident. I mean, I don't know that I laughed aloud on reading this passage, but I was amused. The reader here is more on the side of Benjulia than the caricature-esque character of the cook, and I'm not sure what to make of that (it might just mean that to Wilkie Collins a good joke is a good joke, even if it disrupts your novel's carefully constructed moral universe), but it indicates that despite its obviously polemical qualities, despite its title, there are times Heart and Science resists easy dualities.

* The article was supposed to be out by now, but as these things so often go, it's still forthcoming.

17 April 2018

Review: Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, Volume 8 by James Roberts, Alex Milne, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2015 (contents: 2015)
Acquired October 2016
Read August 2017
Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, Volume 8

Written by James Roberts
Art by Hayato Sakamoto, Brendan Cahill, and Alex Milne
Additional Inks by Brian Shearer
Colors by Joana Lafuente
Letters by Tom B. Long


This volume of More than Meets the Eye is less focused than the last few, in a good way. Instead of featuring one big story, this one gives us a number of one- or two-chapter tales, spotlighting the broad cast of this book in a variety of situations. Among other events, the Decepticon Justice Division learns that Megatron's gone Autobot, Brainstorm is put on trial for the events of volume 7 while Ratchet weighs up what's important, the Lost Light finally catches up to the Vis Vitalis and has multiple dance parties, the entire crew visits a sitcom version of Earth, and the Lost Light discovers a clue to the existence of the afterlife. Phew!

After what I saw as getting overly convoluted in volume 7, volume 8 is largely a return to form. The D.J.D. plotline continues to burble away in the background, but this volume makes it more likely that some kind of confrontation is coming, as the D.J.D. learns of Megatron's heel-face turn, considers ending it all, but then realizes that Decepticonism is not a person, but an ideology. Nice enough, but of course the best part of the whole issue was the jokes, particularly learning how much the D.J.D. is into forms:
The D.J.D. has to fill out the same kind of forms my wife does as a high school teacher!
from Transformers: More than Meets the Eye #39 (art by Hayato Sakamoto)




The next story is cute, mostly for Ratchet's considerations of his friendship with Drift, who departed the Lost Light all the way back in volume 4. I look forward to seeing where this goes, because I miss Drift. (Words I never thought I'd say after All Hail Megatron.) Hopefully Ratchet does bring him back to the Lost Light.

16 April 2018

Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Trade paperback, 442 pages
Published 2013

Acquired December 2016
Read May 2017
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

I really enjoyed this. Basically the perfect sort of space opera (if you're me): cool concepts like dispersed intelligence and living spaceships, effective world-building down to the littlest details, nuanced take on the details of how colonialism functions, well-written characters, effective plot structure, strong prose, and gripping action-- I read through the last one hundred or so pages in one go because I had to find out what was happening.

It struck me how this book was in some ways a response to Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, though not an anti-Left Hand. Maybe more a development of it. The setting puts me in mind of it: a lone visitor from an interstellar alien* alliance comes to an iced-over world where the gender rules are different to what they're used to. In both books, there ends up being a long cross-tundra journey on a sledge, with the life of someone the visitor knows hanging in the balance. Only in Left Hand, the representative is an actual emissary; in Ancillary Justice, they're a fugitive from an underclass. In Left Hand, the other person on the sledge is a close friend; in Ancillary Justice, the visitor doesn't even know why they're saving them. In Left Hand, the visitor comes from a world with our concepts of gender; in Ancillary Justice, the visitor goes to a world with our concepts of gender. In Left Hand, the book defaults to male pronouns for characters who are hermaphroditic; in Ancillary Justice, the book defaults to female pronouns for every character no matter their gender/sex. In Left Hand, the interplantary space alliance is largely benevolent; in Ancillary Justice, it's decidedly not. There are enough parallels-with-divergence to make me feel like it was intentional, or at least that Left Hand of Darkness was bubbling somewhere in Leckie's subconscious as she wrote Ancillary Justice. Though if this is all so, I'd have to think more before advancing what Leckie might actually be trying to say in her reworking.

* Alien in the sense of cultural, not biological. In both books, the visitor and the visited are (essentially) biologically human.

13 April 2018

Into the Zone: Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker


A couple years I watched the Andrei Tarkovsky adaptation of Solaris for the first time. Andrei Tarkovsky (not to be confused with Genndy Tartakovsky) directed one other science fiction film, Stalker (1979).

[Note that this blog post spoils a thirty-nine-year-old movie that you will probably never watch.]

I haven't see anything else by Tarkovsky, but there are some interesting parallels between Solaris and Stalker. While in Solaris, human beings go into space and encounter some kind of alien life which can reshape reality, in Stalker, some kind of alien presence lands in Russia (we're told they thought it was a meteorite). The area around it is cleared out and fenced off, known as "the Zone," and in the heart of the Zone is "the Room," where you can go to achieve happiness. The main character is the unnamed "stalker," a person skilled at navigating the Zone, and the film chronicles one his trips into the Zone, leading an unnamed professor and an unnamed writer to the Room.

The main question of Solaris is whether humanity is really searching for the unknown, or whether humanity is just searching for itself. ("We don't know what to do with other worlds. We don't need other worlds. We need a mirror. We struggle for contact, but we'll never find it. We're in the foolish human predicament of striving for a goal that he fears, that he has no need for. Man needs man.") These ideas play out in Stalker in different combinations. The unknown has come to us, but we have cordoned it off. The writer and the professor don't want to know what the Room is; they want what it can do for them. (Or so we think at first; the professor turns out to have a hidden agenda.)

Like Solaris, there are long stretches of the film where it's not always clear why something is happening. But like Solaris, it can also be riveting at times. Once the characters make it into the Zone, it's a tour-de-force of tension, because you are utterly convinced that anything can happen in a strange shifting landscape even though the landscape never actually shifts and nothing actually harms the main characters. Or even really threatens to that much. The movie looks like it was filmed in some kind of dilapidated industrial site (Wikipedia tells me it was a deserted hydroelectric plant), but when you watch it, Tarkovsky convinces you that it's an alien landscape. When the characters push their way through the tall grass, Tarkovsky convinces you that reality is crumbling. But there's no on-screen special effects, no camera trickery, just tension. I don't know enough about film to tell you how he does it, but he does it, and it works.

Most of the time. There is a bit where the writer is sent down a tunnel, and later he's like, 'Holy crap, I can't believe you guys made me do that!' But me, I'm just like, 'All you did was go down a tunnel.'

At the end, the characters draw near the Room, and truths are revealed. The professor is there to blow it all up (he worries what politicians will do if they get their wishes and use them to create utopia), while the writer casts doubts on whether or not the Room is real, if the stalker isn't living out some kind of fantasy himself by watching people go through this, yet never realizing the Room does nothing-- because those the stalker escorts back out of the Zone rarely seem happier.

As was said in Solaris, "We're in the foolish human predicament of striving for a goal that he fears, that he has no need for. Man needs man." No one in the party has need of the Room; the stalker needs to go back to and reconnect with his family.

So, all right, okay? When watching Solaris, I felt like I learned something; when watching Stalker, I felt like I missed something. Two hours and forty minutes is a long time to watch to be told, 'The real magic was at home all along!' That there was never anything to the Room or possibly even to the Zone fizzles out the entire thing. Even though the movie doesn't commit to this idea-- it's definitely left ambiguous-- it still doesn't satisfy. There is no big idea, and the stalker brings home a dog he finds in the Zone. It kind of works emotionally (the part of the movie set after the leave the Zone is like coming down from an adrenaline rush), but it doesn't satisfy thematically.

The end hints are something more, though. The scenes set in the Zone are in color, while scenes outside of it are in this bright sepia tone. When the stalker dreams in the Zone, his dreams are in sepia, but some of the scenes in the end are in color, despite being set outside the Zone, mostly those revolving around the stalker's daughter, "Monkey." Is it because family was the true happiness all along? Or is it because Monkey is something else, something new: the very last scene indicates she has some kind of telekinetic powers.

But why? Wikipedia tells me that in the novel Roadside Picnic, upon which Stalker is based, "It is widely rumored that incursions into the Zone by stalkers carry high risk of mutations in their children, even though no radiation or other mutagens had been detected in the area." This information was not communicated in the film so far as I noticed, though, so it's an epilogue that sits oddly, with an unclear relationship (in terms of both theme and plot) with with preceded it.

There's definitely some interesting stuff happening in Stalker, and some great filmmaking. But watching it after Solaris, I can't help but feel that anything Tarkovsky did well here, he already did better in the earlier film.

I like to take my own screenshots when possible, but for this essay I cheated and just used ones I found on Google Images, since I'd already returned the disc to Netflix.

12 April 2018

Review: The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler

Hello, sweetie! River Song is back in the third set of extracts from her diary.

Trade paperback, 444 pages
Published 1986 (originally 1903)
Acquired and read January 2013
The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler

When I was reading this book for my Ph.D. exams in a coffee shop, a guy came up to me and asked, "Who's forcing you to read Samuel Butler?" "Uh, I guess I am," I replied, because no one suggested I put The Way of All Flesh on my exam list... except myself! He told me he pitied me. That's actually the main thing I remember about The Way of All Flesh, to be honest, other than a vague sense that it's sort of a less good rip-off of Edmund Gosse's Father and Son (even though Way of All Flesh came first).

Even though it was published only two years after the Victorian era ended, it seems very modernist in its take on reason/logic, but also an extension of George Eliot's ideas in some ways. The book points out that we think we live in a world defined by reason, but we resolutely do not, despite the trappings of it: "They [reasonable people] settle smaller matters by the exercise of their own deliberation. More important ones, such as the cure of their own bodies and the bodies of those whom they love, the investment of their money, the extrication of their affairs from any serious mess – these things they generally entrust to others of whose capacity they know little save from general report; they act therefore on the strength of faith, not of knowledge" (306). The book ends up concluding that it is impossible to separate the subjective from the objective, the inner from the outer, the fact from the feeling:
The trouble is that in the end we shall be driven to admit the unity of the universe so completely as to be compelled to deny that there is either an external or an internal, but must see everything both as external and internal at one and the same time, subject and object – external and internal – being unified as much as everything else. This will knock our whole system over, but then every system has got to be knocked over by something.
     Much the best way out of this difficulty is to go in for separation between internal and external – subject and object – when we find this convenient, and unity between the same when we find unity convenient. This is illogical, but [...] all philosophies that I have ever seen lead ultimately either to some gross absurdity, or else to the conclusion already more than once insisted on in these pages, that the just shall live by faith, that is to say that sensible people will get through life by rule of thumb as they may interpret it most conveniently without asking too many questions for conscience sake. Take any fact, and reason upon it to the bitter end, and it will ere long lead to this as the only refuge from some palpable folly. (327-8)
Forget modernist, this seems downright postmodernist: the Grand Narratives have failed us, so all you can really do is muddle through with the stories you've got, and they'll help you as much as they do, and not only is that okay, but maybe even it's for the best?

I vaguely remember the philosophy of the book, as thankfully I took notes, but do not at all remember the actual events of the book, even upon rereading those notes, so take that as you will. I seem to recall it belongs to that genre of post-Victorian takes on the Victorian era that still seems a little too Victorian for its own good (like Rachel Ferguson's Alas, Poor Lady). That is to say, it's trying to push a new philosophy, but it's married to the most tedious aspects of the old plotting. The modernists would do this kind of thing much better.

10 April 2018

Review: The Transformers: Combiner Wars: First Strike by John Barber, Andrew Griffith, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2015 (contents: 2014-15)
Acquired October 2016
Read July 2017
The Transformers: Combiner Wars: First Strike

Written by John Barber
Art by Sarah Stone, Livio Ramondelli, Andew Griffith, and Brendan Cahill
Colors by Josh Perez
Additional Colors by Joana Lafuente and Thomas Deer
Letters by Tom B. Long


Unlike its sister title, Robots in Disguise didn't lose its leading article... it just lost the whole rest of the title! Now plain old Transformers, but at least it's gained full subtitles in lieu of volume numbers, as this volume is called Combiner Wars: First Strike. To my surprise, it actually opens with a Windblade continuation of sorts, keeping up that series's development of events back on Cybertron, and even using Windblade's artist, Sarah Stone. Awakening after his apparent death (back in volume 5, I think? I lose track), Wheeljack is confronted with a strange new Cybertron, ruled by Starscream and inhabited by women! (like Windblade), and he has to decide where his loyalties lie. It's slight, but I like Wheeljack.

A girl!?
from The Transformers: Robots in Disguise vol. 1 #33 (art by Sarah Stone)

After that, though, it's just confirmation that the new direction of this comic book is not one that I am enjoying. Pompous journeys into Cybertronian history are becoming increasingly dull to me. They're just a cheap way of attempting to add weight to banal proceedings (so is Livio Ramondelli's artwork). And then we're off to four whole issues of Prowl being an asshole to everyone, another thing I have rapidly become tired of. It doesn't even make sense for Optimus to leave the mentally compromised Prowl in charge, something he seems to acknowledge:
Everyone says Optimus Prime is a Great Leader, but when I read scenes like this it's hard to believe it.
from The Transformers vol. 2 #35 (art by Andrew Griffith)

Prowl dominates the book so much in its current form that there's not much enjoyment to seek elsewhere. I've never really cared for this version of Spike Witwicky since he was introduced in All Hail Megatron, and though I liked Jimmy Pink in Simon Furman's stories, he's not really the same without Hunter and Verity alongside. I like Arcee, but she's mostly a bystander here, and the rest of the Earth-based Autobots are barely interesting at best.

Even when Prowl's not there, all everyone else does is talk about him!
from The Transformers vol. 2 #38 (art by Andrew Griffith)

I just don't get why the series has gone in this direction, throwing aside its unique selling points in favor of generic, uninspired Earth infiltration while everyone chases after some kind of generic, uninspired maguffin. Why make Optimus the leader of the Autobots and then send him out in the field? Why isn't he leading his people? Why can't he delegate? It's a weird and not very organic development of the series post-Dark Cybertron.

Next Week: Meanwhile, in space... even the Decepticon Justice Division can be More than Meets the Eye!

09 April 2018

Review: The Omega Men: The End Is Here by Tom King, Barnaby Bagenda, et al.

I had three reviews go up at Unreality SF, all of 2017 Big Finish Doctor Who audio dramas. Two first Doctor stories, "The Destination Wars" and "The Great White Hurricane," and two sixth Doctor stories, The Behemoth and The Middle.


Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2016 (contents: 2015-16)

Acquired September 2016
Read January 2017
The Omega Men: The End Is Here

Writer: Tom King
Artists: Barnaby Bagenda, Toby Cypress, Ig Guara, José Marzan Jr.
Colorists: Romula Fajardo Jr., Tomeu Morey
Letterer: Pat Brosseau

In interviews about Threshold, Keith Giffen stated his intentions to bring in the Omega Men at some point. Clearly, we need to be grateful that he did not, because it might have prevented this comic from existing. Tom King and Barnaby Bagenda present the third incarnation of the Omega Men, but possibly the first to actually deliver on their potential-- they pick up on the morally ambiguous aspects of the Omega Men set up in the early issues of the 1983 Roger Silfer/Keith Giffen run to great effect. This version of The Omega Men is violent and harsh. Former Green Lantern Kyle Rayner comes to the Vega system to try to make peace, but finds that sometimes, violence is the only response to oppression. But this is a violence beyond that of most superhero-adjacent comic books. The nine-panel grid gives the proceedings a monotonous feel-- in a good way. It's like one of those movies where there are no cuts, you just have to watch the horrible things happen.

A prisoner of the nine-panel grid... just like he's a prisoner of THE OMEGA MEN!!!
from The Omega Men vol. 3 #1 (art by Barnaby Bagenda)

King was a CIA agent of some stripe before he became a comic book writer, and his depictions of the complications of the Vega system really benefit from this. The six worlds of Vega (gone are the umpteen worlds of the old days; Starfire's homeworld of Tamaran doesn't seem to be in Vega anymore) have been conquered by the Citadel. Vega is the only source of a precious mineral, and it's impossible not to see echoes of Western involvement in the Middle East for its resources. King and Bagenda depict a lot of local conflicts, too; it's not just Star Wars-style Evil Empire vs. Hapless Rebels. Each planet has its own factions, some of whom find merit in co-operating with the Citadel for whatever reason. You even have the planet Euphorix, where the Citadel resettled the Brahmins from another system to that planet, so there's its natives, plus the Brahmins, plus the Citadel. I liked the delving into religion, too: both the Citadel and Vega worship the same god, Alpha, the first cause, but the inhabitants of Vega also worship Omega, the end. There's a lot of nuance and story here.

Scrapps, the Patchwork Girl???
from The Omega Men vol. 3 #5 (art by Barnaby Bagenda)

The End Is Here makes up one longer story, but each issue is its own standalone, too, another piece in the puzzle that is the true agenda of the Omega Men, and the slow unlocking of their backstories, and the slow breaking of Kyle Rayner. The first couple I felt were the strongest, maybe because that was when the book was new and fresh and I had no idea what could happen. It did eventually settle into a pattern, but still found ways to surprise me, like with Kyle and the Princess Kalista in hiding on Hny'xx, the market world-- suddenly it was a survival thriller, as we got a taste of what it's like to just live in Vega when you can't rebel.

Life in dystopia is always so much fun...
from The Omega Men vol. 3 #7 (art by Barnaby Bagenda & Ig Guara)

If there was ever an argument for the New 52, this book was it. In my review of the 2005-06 Omega Men revival, I commented on how the core premise of the series mutated over time-- and by the point the Omega Men were appearing in R.E.B.E.L.S., a return to the original hook would have been inexplicable and impossible. The New 52 lets DC do that. Like the best reboots, this is a different angle on something that was there all along. The Omega Men had become sort of impotent and toothless-- look at how Tigorr went from savage beast to a one-eyed cigar-chomping stereotype. Fun, but not exactly a feral freedom fighter/terrorist. In The End Is Here, King and Bagenda bring The Omega Men back, the way they always should have been.

(Also the propaganda poster style covers by Trevor Hutchison are delightful. I would buy every one of them as a print if I could.)

06 April 2018

Fluffy

Some cats come into a life more straightforwardly than others. The way Fluffy came into ours was downright traumatic.


Fluffy lived with my wife's mother's neighbors. Within four days of each other one summer, they passed away, leaving behind a dog and an unwanted cat. Hayley's mom came over to feed him every day, but no relative wanted him, and Hayley's mom herself is allergic. As time went on, Fluffy grew lonelier and lonelier in the empty house, and Hayley began to insist that we should take him.

The thing was, though, that this all took place some time ago, before we were married. Fluffy was in Madison, Ohio, Hayley was in Lawrence, Kansas, and I was in Vernon, Connecticut. There was no good way to get Fluffy to Kansas, and there was no place for Fluffy in my apartment. But if we didn't take him, he would continue to live alone.

A plan was hatched. My parents were willing to take him in short-term, provided we took him off their hands once we got married. Hayley's mom drove down from Madison, and handed Fluffy off to my mother, who took him back to hers. Once I came to know Fluffy, I suspect this whole process was intimidating and torturous to him. Fluffy settled in on the second floor of my parents' house, out of the way of my parents' cat, Sam (who was not a fan of Fluffy or any other animal). Mostly he hid under my sister's bed (she was away at college) for what turned out to be ten months.

I saw him when I came home for Christmas. He was easily startled, and very on edge; he would hiss and growl and swipe at anyone who came too close.

When we got married, we drove a carful of stuff and Fluffy from Cincinnati to Connecticut. He meowed plaintively for thirteen hours straight, and then got dumped into a totally new new place-- one that already had a cat in it. We'd earlier flown Hayley's cat Tequila from Kansas to Connecticut, and friends had watched her while we were gone.

Tequila was a territorial old lady who didn't take any shit. (While our neighbors were watching her, she took over part of their apartment.) We had a plan that we'd keep the cats separated at first, with him in the bedroom with us to calm him down, but it was not to be. Fluffy freaked out. Our back room was piled high with boxes, and Fluffy ran deep into it, to a point where there was no way for us to get him out. He didn't come out for three days. I don't know how he did it, but he didn't eat or poop or pee. He hissed ferociously at anyone who came close. We let him be for a while.

Once he came out, he still didn't have a great time. Tequila was a bit of a bully. He did warm up, though, both to us and to Tequila. On occasion he would joyfully bound up to Tequila like he wanted to play, and she would just give him a withering glare and walk away.

It was a rough twelve months for him.

Tequila passed away after about six months in Connecticut, and Fluffy came to enjoy life as king of the castle. We discovered he had an insatiable passion for tuna, and also a great love of yarn. We could run in circles around the apartment with a piece of yarn behind us, and he would pursue us as long as we were able. He never tired.

Fluffy was a cat who liked things to remain constant. He also liked to sit under things. That first winter in Connecticut, under our Christmas tree became his safe space. So much so that when we took the tree away, he promptly vomited.

For a couple years, we tried taking him home with us when we drove back for Christmas. On one such trip, he got into a fight with my sister's cat (also home for Christmas) and in revenge, peed on one of her boots. Things got worse when we woke up in the middle of the night to hear him yowling. There was yarn down his throat and it wouldn't come back up; he'd been playing with one of Hayley's crochet projects and accidentally swallowed some of her yarn. Once it starts going down, there's nothing a cat can really do about it. We cut it off and basically could only hope everything would be fine. We later worked out that he'd swallowed three feet of yarn. He was fine in the end, but it was a traumatic trip.

Hayley was clearly his favorite, but Fluffy was my bro too. When Hayley spent her summers doing research in South Africa, I found myself talking aloud to Fluffy to have someone to talk to. "Okay Fluffy, I'm off to the store now." I knew I'd gone doo-lally, though, when I started having conversation with Fluffy when he wasn't there. "Okay Fluffy, we're at the grocery store. I need to remember to get pickles."

After the difficulty of having two cats (Tequila peed all over the place, though that was probably more kidney issues than territorial ones), we were happy to stick to one for a while, but eventually we cat-sat, and Fluffy got along super-well with Mr. Whiskers; he clearly wanted to play with someone. So Oracle entered into our lives, and even though Fluffy was as shy as ever at first, he opened up eventually. They had a couple good years together.

Unfortunately, the last year or so, Fluffy's life has been deteriorating. He developed a limp, and it turned out that his joints were seizing up. He could no longer jump up on the couch or bed, no longer wanted to chase yarn or play with Oracle. Upon coming down to Florida, things began to get even worse. To keep things easy for him, we confined him to one room (our bedroom) with everything he wanted in it, including his fancy heated cat bed.

But two weeks ago now, I realized he'd gone from wobbling on his way to the litter box to not being able to stand up at all, and he was just pooping and peeing in place in his bed.

Even before that, we'd been thinking about it, but once he reached that point, we knew we had to let him go. He'd been on various medicines over the past couple years, and none of them had really worked for the long term. But it's tough, it's really tough to decide to do something like that. I've lost various pets before (two cats from when I was a kid, and then Tequila), but none of them that I was as close to as Fluffy, and certainly none of them where I was part of the decision. Hayley was out of town that weekend, and I was grading in Starbucks as we texted about it, and I felt myself tearing up. I'd avoided seriously thinking about when Hayley had raised the issue before, dodging the issue, but now there was no dodging it.

We put Fluffy to sleep last Friday. It wasn't easy to watch him go, but we stayed with him. We transported him to and from the vet in his heated cat bed. This was the day after we saw our baby's anatomy ultrasound; the day before we buried him under two orange trees we planted in the front yard.


Ups and downs, life and death, endings and beginnings. Some cats come into your lives straightforwardly, but no cat leaves straightforwardly.

05 April 2018

Review: Scientific Attitudes in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by Samuel Holmes Vasbinder

Hardcover, 111 pages
Published 1984
Borrowed from the library
Read May 2017
Scientific Attitudes in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by Samuel Holmes Vasbinder

This is a published version of a dissertation from the 1970s-- reading it, I'm convinced it was much easier to write one back then. This is really just an inflated article. Of the book's 82 pages of actual content (once you discount notes and bibliography), only about 30 of them are really worthwhile; the 25-page description of the critical tradition, for example, could have been a couple judiciously footnoted citations. Anyway, Vasbinder shows how Shelley made use of actual science in Frankenstein, both in terms of incorporating research on topics like electricity, and in terms of using the "new science" of induction/deduction/hypothesis (as distinct from alchemy and magic). He treats Frankenstein's methods with admirable thoroughness, teasing out what previous critics may have glossed over. He shows how Frankenstein's work was "based on the supposition that the structure of the universe was knowable by man through the careful application of human reason to the observation of natural phenomena" (65), better explicating for me the way that Frankenstein is a scientist in the modern sense-- and thus Frankenstein is a piece of science fiction.

Where he loses me is that he has an overly simplistic reading of the novel: because the novel's description of Frankenstein's adventures in corpses is calm and detached, he argues, there must not have been anything wrong with it. This overlooks that I think Frankenstein is the one who tells us about these studies, and he is hardly an unbiased narrator! To describe Shelley as having "positive attitude toward Newtonian science" (69) strips the novel of the very nuance that Vasbinder's analysis is trying to reveal. There may be more science in Frankenstein than pre-1984 critics admitted, but that doesn't mean Frankenstein had a positive attitude toward this science. So, some good insight, but weirdly subsumed into a misguided overall analysis of the novel.

03 April 2018

Review: Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, Volume 7 by James Roberts, Alex Milne, et al.

Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
Published 2015 (contents: 2014-15)
Acquired October 2016
Read July 2017
Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, Volume 7

Written by James Roberts
Art by Alex Milne
Additional Art by Atilio Rojo
Additional Inks by Brian Shearer
Colors by Joana Lafuente
Letters by Tom B. Long


The series name of More than Meets the Eye has slightly changed, with the removal of the leading article from "The Transformers." Beyond that, though, this volume is more of the same in both good and bad ways, with More than Meets the Eye at its most character-based but also perhaps its most obscure. After a prologue with a couple minor characters running afoul of the Decepticon Justice Division (poor guys), the main story kicks in with the reveal of an alternate universe where the Functionists (a political faction which believes Transformers' functions are defined entirely by their forms) are in command. This appears to be the responsibility of Brainstorm, who is secretly a Decepticon and has traveled back in time to kill Orion Pax (the future Optimus Prime).

Megatron is starting to suspect he's in a different, more ridiculous comic than he used to be...
from The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye #35 (art by Alex Milne & Brian Shearer)

So what we get is time travel hijinks, More than Meets the Eye-style, as Brainstorm skips through time, and Rodimus and company skip after him, blundering into key historical events and trying to stay out of trouble, but not very well. It's fun-- of course-- and funny-- of course-- and gives us some nice moments of insight into our characters, including Megatron and Rung. The Functionists are terrifying, and we get to see some flashbacks scenes from volume 3 in a new light, which is clever.

...but he's starting to figure out the rules whether he likes it or not.
from The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye #38 (art by Alex Milne)

Almost too clever. I've been reading IDW's Transformers comics for almost three years now(!), and still a lot of the intricacies went over my head. Dramatic revelations were only comprehensible because I read the articles on the Transformers wiki. There were definitely moments where I felt like this story was in danger of disappearing up its own self-referential backside, unfortunately. It's so clever you can admire what Roberts is doing, but it's hard to enjoy it. I mean, don't get me wrong, I always enjoyed it. More than Meets the Eye is, as always, replete with details large and small that make it one of the sharpest comics on the stands. But being its most typical isn't its best.

Next Week: Meanwhile, on Earth... Optimus is dumb enough to leave Prowl in command in First Strike!

02 April 2018

Reading Roundup Wrapup: March 2018

Pick of the month: The Vision by Tom King, and Gabriel Hernandez Walta. I liked this a lot, though if it had all been as good as the first half (which I originally read on its own as Little Worse than a Man), I would have loved it. The second half was satisfying, but not amazing.

All books read:
1. The Vision by Tom King
2. Doctor Who: The Three Brothers Gruff by Justin Richards
3. Star Trek: Discovery: Drastic Measures by Dayton Ward
4. Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday Pages, 1985-1995: An Exhibition Catalogue by Bill Watterson
5. Doctor Who: The Grief Collector by Justin Richards
6. Romeo and/or Juliet: a chooseable-path adventure by Ryan North and William Shakespeare and You
7. Revolution by John Barber & Cullen Bunn

Not a lot, but more than last month!

All books acquired:
1. Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth! Omnibus by Jack Kirby and Gerry Conway

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 654 (down 1)
Books remaining on "To review" list: 13 (down 1)