Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Thoughts on "Fahrenheit 451"

“Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury (1953) is considered a classic science fiction novel. It’s the story of a mixed up world where a fireman is someone who burns books and the houses where they are hidden, because books are evil.

Fahrenheit is usually considered to be a novel about censorship gone wild and that certainly is a part of it, but it is also clearly about the pitfalls of increasing government control as well as a very dark prediction about the future of television.

In fact, it was eerie to me how accurately Bradbury predicted the rise of reality television. Bradbury describes a population that is addicted to watching “the Family,” it’s a kind of a 3-D soap opera. We don’t have “the Family,” but we do have a population that seems to hunger for Reality TV. Especially creepy was the scene where Guy Montag is running from the hound and every house he passes he sees in the window that the people are watching the chase on TV. Then he hears an announcer tell everyone to look out their front door and Montag imagines millions of people all opening their front doors.

Many of the characters in the novel are memorable. Montag’s wife, Mildred is such an instantly unlikable character, there is just nothing ever redeeming about her. Captain Beatty, who always sounds so well read. You can’t help but imagine that he must have a secret stash of books himself somewhere. And Clarisse, the girl that Montag befriends at the beginning of the novel. She shows so much intelligence and free-thinking, her household was clearly one in which they read in secret. I kept thinking the novel would reintroduce her and/or her family.

Bradbury just doesn’t write like a typical science fiction authors. Typical science fiction is event and idea driven, while Bradbury writes in a style that is a bit more poetic and descriptive.

In general, I liked Bradury’s writing, but at times, in the novel, the prose would get so descriptive that I’d lose track of what was actually happening. However, in other parts of the novel the increasing description was masterfully handled, such as when Montag is being chased by the hound, the text begins to blur and confuse until we aren’t quite sure what’s actually happening vs. what Montag is imagining.

I read the 50th Anniversary edition which has an Afterword (1982) and Coda (1979) (both by Bradbury). It wasn't until I read these that I realized that Fahrenheit was Bradbury’s first novel. These two short pieces made me wish that Fahrenheit had been written later in Bardbury’s career, the Coda especially is by an author at the height of his confidence and creativity. Here is a large sample, Bradbury was talking about how people send him letters and ask him to make rewrites to his novels and update them and then he mentioned how a school reader anthology tried to edit one of his short stories:

Some five years back, the editors of yet another anthology for school readers put together a volume with some 400 (count ‘em) short stories in it. How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe, Maupassant and Bierce into one book?

Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy. Every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weighed more than a mosquito-out! Every simile that would have made a sub-moron’s mouth twitch-gone! Any aside that explained the two-bit philosophy of a first-rate writer-lost!

Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepenciled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like-in the finale- Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been razored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant’s attention-shot dead.

Do you begin to get the damned and incredible picture?
How did I react to all of the above?
By “firing” the whole lot.
By sending rejection slips to each and every one.
By ticketing the assembly of idiots to the far reaches of hell.
The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.

Reading these two add-ons made me very interested to read the stage play adaptation of “Fahrenheit” that Bradbury wrote, if it’s as good as this Coda…then it would be well worth reading. And apparently a lot of things in the novel are expanded upon, especially Captain Beatty’s part.

Afterthoughts
Bradbury thought 451 degrees Fahrenheit was the temperature at which paper combusts. It is actually 842° Fahrenheit or 450° Celsius. I bet Bradbury gets letters all the time that say he should rename the novel “Celsius 450” or “Fahrenheit 842.” How absurd can you get? By that logic it could also be called, “Kelvin 724.”

One of the reasons why Fahrenheit is so well know is that it has been on the book list of many American schools for decades. On the flip side, I’ve heard sometimes that Fahrenheit is banned by some American schools. This may be true, but only in isolated cases, according to the sources I found it is not one of the commonly banned classics.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Thoughts on "The Foresight War"

In this review of “The Foresight War” by Anthony Williams, I will refer to the author as Tony, because the two of us are both active members of the Classic Science Fiction Message Board. Where we discuss all kinds of things science fiction related.

The plot of the novel concerns two present day (2004) WWII historians traveling back to 1934. One historian is British (Don Erlang), and the other is German (Konrad Herrman). Each of the historians informs their respective governments as to what will happen during the war. Both countries use the knowledge from the historians to better prepare for the war so that weapons that in our history were available in the middle or end of the war are mass produced by the start of the war.

Time Travel

Erlang briefly talks about his mother and father being just children in the 1930, but he never goes and seeks them out. I would have found it irresistible, I mean, his parents might have just been children, but what about his grandparents? I’d love to meet my grandfather when he was in his prime; he died before I was born. He was a doctor and had a private practice in a suburban town for many years. If I’d gone back in time, I’d probably go see him as a patient. That kind of harmless encounter probably wouldn’t put the space-time continuum at risk.

Erlang speculates as to the nature of time travel. He cites a time paradox that is worth mentioning. Since he has altered the course of the war there is a chance that one of his parents might get killed by a bomb during the Blitz that in the normal course of things didn’t explode anywhere near them. If they died then Erlang would have never existed, therefore Erland couldn’t travel back in time and alter events therefore history would return to the way it was in the first place. Unless, as is speculated, Erlang’s time traveling created a parallel universe or dimension which is no longer looped to the previous future, but instead free to explore an entirely different future.

My theory is that the “Foresight” universe is tangent dimension created by an all-powerful being (the author) just to have a playground to test his what ifs. (The novel's Afterword pretty much proves my theory).

German Historian

Herrman, the German historian who is sent back through time, was written as less capable then Erlang. He just didn’t seem to be a historian on the same level as Erlang. I couldn’t help but wonder how much more prepared for the war Germany would have been if Herrman had truly been Erlang’s equal. Also, I never really understood why Herrman worked with Hitler and Himmler and the rest when he clearly found them repulsive. His motivation was to create a stronger Germany that wouldn’t end up controlled by Russia for decades. From the beginning, I would have looked for a ways to circumvent and destroy Hitler and the Nazi’s, not work with them.

Glossary

Especially helpful is the glossary in the back of the book that lists all the military terms used in the book and also explains all the equipment used in the book. So when I read about a Churchill tank, I could look it up in the glossary and learn it’s specifications as well as whether the Churchill in the “Foresight” universe was different from the historical Churchill tanks.

This means that the book is readable to a Joe Shmoo like me, who is not one of these dumb Americans you read about that doesn’t know who fought in WWII. But, I am also not an expert on the war. Heck, for most of the book I kept wondering when they were going to start building trenches.

Vignettes

The action of the war is played out in vignettes that run anywhere from one paragraph to a page and a half. Most times the vignettes are strung together so they tell the story of a battle or a certain campaign. You see the action from different perspectives such as, British planes, then German U-boat, then a British tank, etc. Sometimes it was difficult for me to figure out what I was reading about, and by the time I understood the perspective changed again.

The perspective also shifts back to Erlang or Hermann who are in respective command centers and are reacting to the events of the day like a sort of Greek Chorus evaluating the course of the war and providing exposition.

Sometimes the vignettes were emotionally powerful such as the story of the British plane that fires at a German bus. Shrapnel from the bus ends up downing the plane. The pilot bails out and hits the ground near the bus. It is then that he realizes that the bus he destroyed was full of children. A crowd of Germans grabs the pilot and lynches him. As they tie the rope around his neck he pleads, “I didn’t know it was children.” This level of pathos is impossible to sustain, especially with so many short pieces.

One part of the book that worked really well was the part that dealt with Pearl Harbor. Morgan, an RAF (Royal Air Force) officer, is one of the few that know about future events. He is given the horrible task of going to Pearl Harbor to minimized US loses without telling them there is going to be an attack ahead of time. This piece wasn’t really longer then some of the other perspectives, but it meant more to me because I’d gotten to know Morgan throughout the novel.
That would have been my preference to follow certain soldiers’ perspectives for longer periods. I know the whole point of the book was to explore questions like how this British tank would have faired against that German tank, but without having the humanity of a soldier you get to know and care about, it just may as well be robot tanks fighting other robot tanks.

The Holocaust

I felt like it was weird that the Holocaust was only mentioned once or twice by Erlang and nothing about it was ever seen first hand. However, I realize concentrating on this horrible genocide wouldn’t have added anything to the focus of the novel, which was exploring how the “Foresight” universe differed from our own.

The Ending
(Warning major Spoilers)

The end of the book reminded me of two recent movies, both of which came out after this book. Is Hollywood stealing ideas from you Tony?

The movie “Valkyrie”(2008) is all about the ill-fated German resistance movement. Operation Valkyrie is not mentioned by name in “Foresight,” but it is pretty clear that after Herrman blew up all of the Nazi leaders, the resistance used the Reserve Army to seize and remove the Nazi Party under the false pretense that the SS had attempted a coup d'état.

The second movie that came to mind was “Inglourious Basterds” (2009). At the end of the movie several plots to assassinate Hitler and the other leaders of the Nazi Party collide with explosive results. The traitorous SS Colonel Hans Landa describes the film premiere in Paris that is being attended by Hitler, Himmler, Göring, Goebbels and other prominent part members as having “all the rotten eggs in one basket.”

I think the book ended in the right spot, at the end of the German/British conflict, because that’s what the book was generally about. However, I did have a lot of questions about what may have happened next:

-Did the increased Japanese navel losses at the beginning of the war cause the use of atomic weapons to be unnecessary?
-Was the United Nations created?
-Was the State of Israel declared?
-When did Britain “get the Bomb”?
-Did Russia emerge from the war a super power?
-What happened to Mussolini?

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I also reviewed Tony’s second novel “Scales.” here. I gave it an A+. It is a great read and it’s available for free here.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Some Details in "Back to the Future"...



Everyone has been celebrating the 25th anniversary since the debut of the movie "Back to the Future" and I'm no different. After all, I love the movie and watched it many times when I was a kid.

I watched it again a couple of nights ago and paid attention to some of the details in the film. You know, stuff I missed the first hundred times I watched it.

The first detail is the comic book the kid shows his dad in 1955, that proves that the DeLorean is a space ship and Marty in the radiation suit is an alien. "Shoot it, shoot it, it's already taken human form." I figured maybe it was a real comic, but it's just a creation. It really does capture the feel of the EC comics of the 50's doesn't it?






The next thing I wondered about was the movies that are featured on the marquee at the movie theater in 1955. The first one is "The Cattle Queen of Montana" starring Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Regan which was obviously picked just because Regan was in it. "Ronald Reagan? The actor? Then who's Vice-President? Jerry Lewis? I suppose Jane Wyman is the First Lady! And Jack Benny is Secretary of the Treasury."

The movie on the marquee on the night Marty goes back to the future is "The Atomic Kid," a 1954 movie starring Mikey Ronney. The theatrical poster has the tagline "It's a laugh explosion" and a woman telling Mikey to "control your neutrons." That sounds kind of like a lost Doc line.





The next details are in the scene where Marty uses George's love of science fiction to convince him to ask Lorraine out. "I am Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan." George had fallen asleep while reading the fall 1954 issue of Fantastic Story Magazine, this time the robot kind of like Marty in the radiation suit. The difference this time is that it's actually a real magazine!

However, the music Marty tortures his dad with may or may not be real. As the tape Marty puts in says it is definitely Eddie Van Halen on the tape, but I'm not sure whether the clips are from. Some websites say "Eruption"others "Donut City" from the movie "The Wild Life" which stars none other then the original Marty, Eric Stoltz and Lea Thompson. Still other websites claim that the music is just some original riffs Eddie played just for the movie as a favor to record producer Quincy Jones. Since the last claim was said to be from the commentary track with Bob Gale and Neil Canton it just might be the true one.



Finally, when Marty goes back to 1985 and it turns out his whole family is happier and more successful because George learned to stand up for himself when he decked Biff. George gets a copy of his book in the mail.

The joke being that it looks like a retelling of how Darth Vader told him he had to date Lorraine.

But the book is proof that, "if you put your mind to it you can accomplish anything."





Saturday, October 23, 2010

Thoughts on "Scales"

Part 1

I don’t usually mind being a spoiler in my reviews because my logic is that you can only really have a sensible conversation about a book if both people involved have actually read the thing or if, at the very least, the relevant concepts have been fully explained. Also, I figure since most of my readers are Science Fiction fans and/or book club members, chances are they’ve already read the book.

However, with this review of “Scales” by Anthony Williams, I’m a little concerned about spoilers for two reasons:
1) The twists and turns in this novel are really good and unexpected.
2) Most people may not have read this novel.

So, in deference to everyone that hasn’t yet read this novel, this review will be in 2 parts. Part 1 will be spoiler free and discuss the novel in a general way and part 2 will be more in depth and should only be read by those who have already read the book.

Why haven’t you read this book?

Most likely you haven’t read this book because you didn’t know it existed. The novel was published through Authors Online LTD a British company formed in 1997 which publishes novels online and can also now print novels on demand. You can get Scales online for free here (in Adobe or MS Reader format).

Before I say anymore, I have to be honest here, I know the author of this novel through cyberspace. Tony and I have both been active posters at Yahoo’s Classic Science Fiction Message Board for many years. So, I will admit that I might have some bias. But those who know me and/or those who have read some of my reviews, know that I’m not one that minces words or lets authors off easy.

So you know I am being completely honest when I say that “Scales” is such a great Science Fiction novel it deserved a Hugo Award nomination.

I’m sure those who haven’t read the book are sort of checking out mentally or thinking to themselves, “this guy is a really good friend.” But those who have read the novel understand why it is worthy of such high praise.

The novel is about a man named Matt Johnson aka Cade. He is a journalist and a man who believes in science not faith. There is a mysterious explosion in his house and he is badly hurt. He should be dead, but instead he rapidly begins to heal and his skin begins to come away and instead of human skin he has a sort of lizard skin underneath. Also, he slowly begins to discover that this new skin and his quick healing are not the only powers that he suddenly possesses.

Part 2
Spoilers…

One of the things I enjoyed about the novel was the way it kept sort of switching genres. In other words, one of the first things Cade does when he starts to discover his powers is heal people, so I thought this was going to be a novel about a man of science that becomes a faith healer and sort of explore how he reconciles this. But then the focus shifts when Cade starts to help British intelligence catch terrorists and so I thought it was going to be a sort of a James Bond-adventure-Sci-fi. But then, the novel switches focus again when Cade starts to get into Earth politics and I thought the novel was about Earth getting it’s environmental and political house in order. But then the book veers again when the element of parallel worlds and the Saurians are introduced.

But the words “shift” and “veer” aren’t really good terms because the book does not ever lose its focus; it just goes in unexpected directions. Everything that happens ends up being important to the overall story. The book is about: science and religion; action/adventure; politics; and environmental issues. All the different subject matter just makes it seem more realistic.

I really liked this novel’s ideas about parallel world theory. The Saurians postulate that there are 4 different classes of parallel worlds that exist. These 4 classes revolve around kinds of turning points in time.

(rather than the theory of the multiverse that Larry Niven humorously explored in “All the Myriad Ways,” which suggests that for anyone’s every action there is a parallel universe. I didn’t like the multiverse theory. It makes your every action meaningless if there is another universe where the opposite happens.)

The first point of deviation Stage 1) concerns points where life began to develop on Earth.

“When the most infinitesimal variation in the behaviour of the elementary particles could produce major long-term differences. Among other things these could affect the formation of stars and planets, and the likelihood of life developing on a planet.” (p. 92)

Stage 2) Concerns points in time where one set of species types begins to flourish over another and when consciousness and intelligence are introduced. It is during this point that the Saurian world and ours deviated. “There was a natural disaster about a hundred million years ago. It was an asteroid strike- which in your world narrowly missed Earth.” (p. 166). I had guessed that the difference would be the asteroid strike that scientists theorized killed off the dinosaurs on our world. But I like this answer better.

It is an absolutely chilling scene when Cade goes to a Saurian zoo and sees a late stage hominin, a proto-human. Humans only got as far as homo erectus on the Saurian world, before Saurians became a dominate species.

Stage 3) In a broad sense are times when an intelligent species reaches a point of balance or goes down a path towards destruction. The Saurians knew that our Earth was in Stage 3 because they had seen parallel Earths that were more advanced than us revert to savagery after the civilization collapsed. The Saurians on the other hand through technology that brought them peace and returned their ecological balance found a civilization that was sustainable in the long term. They had found the balance.

Stage 4) Was an almost theoretical stage until Cade found he could see and visit these dimensions. This stage involves smaller differences. The Saurians theorized that there was a binding force that despite the differences in these worlds somehow brought them back towards being exactly the same as their close neighbor dimensions until possibly the two dimensions became one again.

At the end of the book when Cade discovers he has the ability to travel to different Stage 4) worlds and he goes to a world where the explosion at his apartment that gave him all the powers didn’t happen. He knocks on his own door and the novel ends. At first I was off-putted by the ending because I really liked the idea that there were only a handful of alternate worlds and it made me uncomfortable that Cade found a world that was so similar to his own. It made me feel like Williams had contradicted my favorite part of his own parallel world theory. Cade imagines that every parallel world he visits is going to splinter into 2 universes a) the universe Cade visited and b) the universe Cade didn’t visit. But I think that maybe in reality, Cade is acting as one of the binding forces that the Saurians had theorized existed. All of the universes Cade visits will be homogenized into a collective consciousness via mind-linking and journeying between dimensions and maybe they don’t actually split like he guessed, but move closer together until they actually combine.

The Saurians are such an interesting species; I think Williams wants us to see them as an ideal. They have reached a balance with nature where they are no longer polluting. There population is not growing to be larger than they can handle. No one is poor, no one is starving and there are no wars. And the recent scientific leaps in crossing into parallel worlds prove that they are not stagnating intellectually. However, they do seem to have lost some of their original drive, some of their survival instincts. Generations of peace have made them to soft and trusting. When the Saurians bring the ambassador from the more warlike Saurian dimension over to their world, Cade is the only one that can anticipate the Ambassador’s actions. Cade asks what they would do if the Ambassador got a weapon and held someone hostage and they have no idea how to defend themselves. And yet the Saurians tell Cade that they survived over a predator species that was, “almost as intelligent, but bigger, faster and fiercer.” (p 167) They survived because of their cunning and that they hunted the predator to extinction. Some might say that the Saurians have evolved past violence, but I’d argue they’ve lost an essential survival skill.

The last point I’ll go into is the effect mind-linking has on human culture when it was introduced in the novel and what the long term effects might be. Mind-linking ability is given to human civilization in the novel in the form of a rapid virus. People can suddenly hear other people’s thoughts and, at least at first, no one was able to hide anything from one another. Extramarital affairs were instantly revealed, politicians were seen to be lairs and I’m guessing used car salesman all committed suicide. Meanwhile, the Saurians developed mind-linking slowly and have many social rules concerned with it, so they really only mind link fully with close friends or family and they can mask some layers of their thoughts. Some humans quickly began to develop these masks, but the social norms would of course be slower to develop. The novel theorizes that wars would be almost impossible because enemies would be able to empathize with each other. Cade and his brother Luke were able to become closer and better understand each other through mind-linking, but they still disagreed. Luke was still a faithful Christian and Cade was not. So I believe the potential for conflict still exists. But I can’t argue that it would be a kinder and gentler world if we could all really understand our similarities as well as our differences.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Thoughts on "Tau Zero"


The story involves a ship traveling via a bussard ramjet engine. Physicist Robert W. Bussard proposed this method for space travel in 1960. The ship has a huge electro-magnetic-net that collects hydrogen from space and compresses it so hard that thermonuclear fusion occurs. This energy is forced out of the rocket’s exhaust and acts as the propellant. And because the hydrogen is everywhere in space they don’t have to carry the weight of fuel.

Unfortunately Bussard’s theory was later disproved because it turns out there isn’t as many high concentrations of hydrogen in space as was thought. However when Poul Anderson wrote the book in the late 60's we didn’t have that information, so I can’t fault him for that.

"Tau Zero" has kind of a weird prose structure. There’ll be a couple of pages of story and then a couple of pages of technical information about the ship or about the bussard ramjet engine. This can be kind of jarring because sometimes I’m more interested in what’s going to happen next in the story, so I’ll want to skip the technical stuff and other times the story dragged and the science was more interesting.

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The book featured 25 men and 25 women on the ship Leonora Christine. I wish the book had a cast of characters list like the Niven/Pournelle novels always have. I made my own list because I wanted to see if all fifty were at least mentioned. I got about 20 men and only 7 women

In order of appearance or mention

Men
1) Charles Reymont; 2) Lars Telander; 3) Boris Fedoroff; 4) Norbert Williams; 5) Elof Nilsson; 6) Johana Freiwald; 7) Auguste Boudreau; 8) Luis Pereira

(Seen once or twice and/or only mentioned)
9) Dr. Urho Latvala ; 10) Chef Carducci; 11) Iwamoto Tetsuo; 12) Kato M’Bato; 13) Malcolm Foxe-Jameson; 14) Mohandas Chidambaran; 15) Lenkei; 16) Pedro Barrios; 17) Michael O’Donnell; 18) Phra Takh; 19) Hussein Sadek; 20) Iwasaki; 21) Yeshu ben-Zvi

Women
1) Ingrid Lindgren; 2) Chi-Yuen Ai-Ling; 3) Jane Sadler; 4) Emma Glassgold; 5) Margarita Jimenes

(Seen once or twice and/or only mentioned)
6) Olga Sobieski; 7) Marie Toomajian

I thought this was kind of unbalanced. Why were so many more men mentioned? The numbers look a little less unbalanced when you consider that there is approximately the same number of men and women characters that are significantly explored. Boudreau and Pereira are seen doing their jobs on the ship but never really seen off-duty. But it was straight up sexism that so many less women are ever mentioned, Anderson couldn’t imagine what jobs a woman would be doing in space, so he said they were there, but never said what they were doing.
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Reymont became too powerful a character compared to the captain who in theory should be the most capable. I understand the captain was supposed to be of an earlier time period because of time dilations, so he feels like he can’t relate to his crew, but at that point shouldn’t he just be a technical advisor instead of a captain. Movie sets sometimes hire experts from scientific fields in order to get details right, but no one puts them in charge of the whole film.

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Towards the end of the book I started to wonder how much time had past for the ship and despite all the depression the crew went through in the book, it couldn’t have been more than a couple of years. I find it hard to believe they traveled through billions of years real time even with time dilation, but as I learned when I questioned some of the science in “Ringworld” sometimes you just can’t understand the math. As they increased speed, maybe the increase in time dilation increased exponentially and exponents get real big, real fast. Can anyone here explain to me mathematically whether this story could be true or not?

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The character of Lindgren bothered me more and more as the book went on. At the start of the novel she is a young girl fresh out of school. She has trained for many years to be an astronaut and we are told she had an extensive education. She is given a very high position for a rookie: first officer. You see, in this novel the first officer’s main job is to be like a human relations officer. You see the captain is a veteran from a different time period so he needs someone to almost translate for him, tell him what modern people are like and smooth over awkward social situations.

In the first chapter Lindgren shows she is a good planner when she bags a boyfriend for the flight before the flight takes off. She sets up a meeting with Reymont before the mission and tells him she’s going to be very busy at the beginning of the mission, but it’s a long mission and she know she’ll want some sexual release and some human contact from time to time, so she wants to seal a deal pronto before someone else bags Reymont. I thought this was pretty smart and showed her to be a savvy judge of how shipboard politics would work.

However, from that good start she starts to get weird. When the engineer is having trouble performing his duties she goes to his quarters and has a drink with him, finds out it’s lady trouble that’s got him down. She compliments him, tells him he’s a great guy and then proceeds to have an affair with him. The affair ends up destroying her relationship with Reymont, who is by her own accord, the love of her life.

So why did she have the affair, for adventure? No. Reymont wasn’t fulfilling some kind of emotion need? No. She had the affair because the ship needed the engineer and the engineer needed sex and his confidence rebuilt. How do I know this for sure, because she does the same exact thing later in the book when Elof Nilsson is feeling suicidal and it is decided that the ship won’t survive without him at the top of his game.

Now it’s one thing to take your job seriously, but it’s quite another to take it upon yourself to become the ship’s courtesan. I’m all for a liberated women that uses her sexuality, but it’s a fine line between being a modern liberated woman and being the ship’s prostitute.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Thoughts on "Sixth Column"...

The “Sixth Column” is one of Robert Heinlein’s first published novels. It was written in 1941 and supposed that the Asians got the atomic bomb and the “vortex beam” and won the war. I think Japan had taken over India and China before invading America so they are referred to PanAsians in the book. We see very little of them in the novel, so they never become anything more than a caricature of Japanese culture. All we learn about them is that they speak in a formal and flowery language and at the slightest dishonor, they commit suicide rather than disgrace their families. They are cruel rulers; thousands of Americans are put to death in retaliation for some rebels capturing one of the PanAsian governors.

People have said that this caricature is racist and it is! However, it is no worse then when aliens are presented as one-dimensionally evil invaders in any number of science fiction novels. But all of us know Japanese culture and Japanese people so we know what a one-sided portrayal this is. Where as when it’s invaders from Mars we just think, “Oh, those Martians are just so evil.”

And it is no different than what governments did historically to demonize the enemy in times of war. The US government demonized the Germans during WWI by portraying them as dark, evil Huns and also demonized the German people and the Japanese during WWII. That’s just what all countries did. It’s only modern technology that has made this kind of thing more difficult today. I mean the average American wants all the terrorists dead today, but at least they don’t want the Afghan people dead. That’s progress!

This book only acknowledges two races Asians and Caucasians; I don’t know what happened to all the other races. African Americans, Native Americans, Middle Eastern Americans just aren’t mentioned at all. As I’ll go in to more detail later the American forces come up with super weapons that can be programmed to only affect PanAsians.

Another unspeakably horrible happening in “Sixth Column” is the PanAsians committing genocide on all the Asian Americans. You see, the PanAsians want to be the master race and want all Americans to be a slave race. It was just too complicated to them that Asian Americans would look like the masters but still be slaves so they just started getting rid of them. It’s not the same, but Americans did round up Japanese Americas during WWII and put them into civilian internment camps (a nice way to say prison camps) because, “they couldn’t be trusted.” A lot better than mass murder, but still awful.

The first chapter of the novel is really excellent, it is really rich story and idea wise: The PanAsians invade Washington and New York City and other major cities and completely take over America in one day. Deep within one of the Rocky Mountains, there is a secret American military base devoted to scientific research called “The Citadel.” On the same day as the invasion, the bases’ most brilliant scientist Ledbetter had an unexpected major scientific breakthrough. Unfortunately the breakthrough resulted in not only his own death, but also the death of all but 6 members of the Citadel.

Also that same day, Major Whitey Ardmore, an intelligence officer from Washington arrives at the Citadel to see how operations there are progressing. He was sent before the invasion. When he left Washington, their hope was that some weapons would be developed soon, before the PanAsians decided to attack. Unfortunately, minutes after his arrival at the Citadel they listen to radio reports of the destruction of American cities. Ardmore has no choice, but to assume that the Citadel might be the last hope for America defeating the PanAsains and that they are on their own.

Ardmore first has the 6 men introduce themselves, there are 3 scientists, a mathematician, a biologist/bio-chemist, and a radiologist/physicist, a craftsman, a cook, and a cook’s assistant.

The first job in the Citadel after Ardmore gives the group a pep talk is to clean up the hundreds of dead bodies in the base from the experiment gone wrong.

Ardmore who immediately assumes command of this group is himself not a military man, he was an advertising man and became a sort of PR man in Washington. It is interesting to see a man that has never fought a war learning how to lead and how to win against impossible odds.

The breakthrough that Ledbetter had concerned the discovery of additional spectra; I’ll let Dr. Lowell Calhoun explain it, “You see, most of the progress in physics in the last century and a half has been in dealing with the electromagnetic spectrum of light, radio, X-Ray…General field theory predicts the possibility of at least three more entire spectra. You see, there are three types of energy fields known to exist in space: electric, magnetic, and gravitic or gravitational. Light, X-rays, all such radiations, are part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Theory indicates the possibility of analogous spectra between magnetic and gravitic, between electric and gravitic, and, finally , a three-phase type between electric-magnetic-gravitic fields. Each type would constitute a complete new spectrum, a total of three new fields of learning. If there are such, they would presumably have properties quite as remarkable as the electromagnetic spectrum and quite different.” (p.20-21 in Hardcover Edition)

Ledbetter it seems had found a way to tap into these other spectrums, unfortunately for him and most of the other people in the Citadel the wave he tapped into is one that is deadly to humans. Calhoun and the others figure out a way to adapt the beam. They can make anyone the beam hits unconscious or dead. They even figured out a way to make it only do so for PanAsians and not Caucasians.

They also tapped into a number of different spectra, they found a communications channel so they had radio and video that could not be traced. They had a spectrum that could be adapted into a personal shield that could deflect most conventional weapons including guns. They found a gravitational spectrum that could be used to lift heavy objects. They found a spectrum of transmutation so they could make endless supplies of gold or turn solid rock into a harmless gas. They also found a spectrum that healed people of all diseases.

Yes, it is extremely unbelievable that 7 people managed to come up with so many technological advances so quickly, but it makes sense that if you tapped into what is basically a new science you might make a bunch of different advances fairly quickly.

So now Ardmore has some superior technology, but it is still just seven men against an empire and he has already seen that as active guerilla warfare on his part would be paid for a thousand times over by innocent Americans. So he has to resort to the strange tactic of starting a new religion. You see the PanAsians still allow freedom of religion oddly enough, because they say “all a slave needs is food, rest and religion and if you give them religion you can deny them the other two sometimes.”

The Citadel quickly spreads their religion around the country and by the time the PanAsians catch on, the Americans are ready to strike.

I enjoyed the book despite its flaws, but I can see why people are offended by the one- dimensional demonizing of Asians and/or think the scientific advances are too convenient.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Thoughts on "Ringworld"

The first thought that sticks with me as I make my first foray into Niven’s “Known Space” universe is that Niven was an idea man, but he wasn’t a storyteller. I mean look at all the ideas and concepts in this novel: Slaver stasis fields, Pierson’s Puppeteers, Kzin, starseeds, General Products hauls, boosterspice, tasps, transfer booths and of course the Ringworld itself. But the story itself is nothing remarkable: Four people crash land on Ringworld and wander around for the whole book. You can really see what Pournelle must have added to their mix as a writing partner. He kept him on task as far as writing interesting stories as well as interesting ideas.

Transfer Booths

Wanted to mention transfer booths, because I thought they were such an original idea when I saw identical devices in Dan Simmon’s “Ilium” series. The concept is obviously borrowed, but I give Simmons a pardon because even though Niven originated the idea, he never really explored the idea. Simmons took it, expanded the idea and kind of made it his own.


Teela Brown

The luck of Teela Brown is a very interesting concept, but luck is a very difficult thing to write about because the question becomes, “who or what is governing the luck?” You see, luck is really only good or bad when you consider future variables. Leaving for work late might be considered bad luck. But when the train the commuter would have been on crashes, suddenly it’s good luck that he was running late.

I just don’t understand how Teela’s luck could have been genetic as the novel suggests. She has had good luck all of her life to the point where she has never experienced fear or rejection, or stubbed her toe. To me luck of that magnitude would have to suggest a “man behind the curtain,” some sort of God like being that has foreknowledge of all future events and the power to manipulate events.

The other thing about her luck that bothered me is that when something bad happened to the party, like when their ship crashed on the Ringworld, Louis, Nessus, and Speaker immediately said, “well, she must not be lucky, that’s why we found her.” But, then when “good” things happen like when she meets Seeker her Conan the Barbarian boyfriend, they say that everything happened because of her luck. It’s like no matter what happens to them it’s because of her luck. Speaker even says the Kzin shouldn’t have another war with the humans because of the other lottery winning families. Do they realize they are assigning God like powers to all of these people when a few days before this they had decided it was all bunk because they’d had some bad luck while she was around.

Ringworld

The detail about Ringworld that I’ve been fixated on is about how because it’s an artificial structure there are no deposits of heavy metals on it. The engineers saw no need for them because they had the technology of transmutation, they could make any elements into any other element, but when their technology began to break down they were left with just what they had. I think it sticks with me because this is what I’ve always thought will kill humanity. We’ll have high levels of technology and forget how we made it and not be able to repair it like in the “Foundation Series” or we’ll deplete our natural resources and not be able to survive without them. Or, we’ll kill animal and plant species, one after another, until we realize we needed tigers for this antibody, but they’ll already be extinct. Or, we’ll realize all the hormones we put into cows have made the milk we drink bad for us, but it will be too late to go back, there won’t be enough cows without the hormones already in them to start over.

The other thing I thought about was the scale of the thing. They had 10 worlds that were getting too crowded. They used all their resources and spent hundreds and hundreds of years on this project. The Ringworld project is a success; the Engineer civilization now has plenty of space. But it isn’t sustainable, it’s too big, instead of helping their civilization to grow, it causes its collapse. What was supposed to solve their over-crowding problem, the project that united people for centuries, turned out to be their downfall. Their civilizations on the original 10 worlds would probably have stood a greater chance of springing back quicker, even when and if their over-crowding caused a collapse.

Gender

As far as gender issues this book is a disaster!

First, we have the Kzin whose females are non-sapient. The men are intelligent and the women are animals. I mean, gender issue wise, it does even out slightly because the Kzin men are exactly what human women imagine men would be like without them: ultra aggressive and violent (4 wars with humans); don’t learn from mistakes or stop for directions (4 wars with humans).

The Pierson’s Puppeteers are another case. The main Puppeteer we see is Nessus, I’m not sure we ever learn for sure if he is a he. Louis just thinks of him as a he. However, his high-pitched voice originally makes Louis think of a woman. When Louis asks him if he is the male or female of the species, Nessus says he doesn’t think it’s proper to talk about reproduction with an alien, but he does reveal when he talks about his deal with the Hindmost that there is a third and again non-sapient gender that is essential to their reproduction.

Much later in the book we meet a Ringworld Engineer. A woman, but she wasn’t a scientist, or an engineer, she was a ship’s whore. You see, the Engineers didn’t have FTL travel, so trips were long. The men needed women to please them… Starting to see the trend?

Then Teela disappears and when they find her she’s with Conan the Barbarian (Seeker). A big muscular guy in a loincloth, who swings a big sword around. Teela is the first to admit he isn’t very bright, so what is it she sees in him? His sense of duty and honor, along with a heavy helping of the fact that he looks like the guy on the cover of every romance novel. But is this really the “perfect man for Teela” as Louis suggests? Louis believes her luck drew the two of them together. Think about it for a minute, this guy Seeker considers women to be property. He thinks he bought Teela for some boosterspice and some bodyguard duty. What happens the first time Teela wants to walk in one direction and he wants to walk in another? What happens the next time he is in the mood for sex and she isn’t? Suddenly I don’t think he’s gonna seem like the perfect man after that.

Size of Ringworld

I didn’t understand the size of Ringworld and because of that the “Eye of the Storm” they came across bothered me. Here is a place where a meteor hit the Ringworld and caused a puncture in the Ringworld floor. Air is leaking out of this hole and causing a violent storm system to occur around it. I wondered, how long before all the air in the Ringworld leaks out from this hole?

The Ringworld is 600,000,000 miles long X 1,000,000 miles wide X 1,000 miles tall =

That’s 600 Trillion X 1,000 Miles tall =

600 quadrillion cubic feet of air.

Assuming the air is leaking one cubic foot per second

600 quadrillion seconds/60 seconds =
10 quadrillion minutes/60 minutes =
166 trillion hours/24 hours
69 trillion days/365 days
19 billion years of air/1000 years
19 million centuries of air

Yep, I guess that’s a while.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Thoughts on "Perelandra"...

This the second book in Lewis’ Space trilogy, it is basically a retelling of early “Genesis” and “Paradise Lost” with the science fiction twist that the events happen on Perelandra (Venus) in the present instead of in the Garden of Eden at the dawn of time.

C.S. Lewis, who says that Ransom told him about his experiences on Venus narrates the novel. I think Lewis switched to this form of narrator because he knew he could not explain what it felt like for Ransom to experience the trip across space or how wonderful Venus fruits tasted so it was easier to say, “Ransom said he couldn’t explain it to me,” than to have to say, “I can’t explain it to you,” which seems like more of a cop out.

The first part of the story is a sort of travelogue about the surface of Venus how the land is not fixed, there are these floating islands that are pushed here and there by Venus’ oceans. The islands are filled with all sorts of strange planet life and also friendly animals. And everything Ransom eats tastes fantastic. But I started to wonder if there was any intelligent life on the planet.

Finally Ransom meets “the Green Lady” a beautiful naked green woman, yet Ransom feels no sexual attraction to her due to the innocence of the planet or how innocent she instantly seemed or…basically just because that’s what the book said, I guess?

The Green Lady sits around with her friendly animals and waits for her King to come back, you see her man lives on some other island, but when they met again, they will start civilization on the planet.

The Green Lady and Ransom take a trip over the “the Fixed Land” a huge mountain that is the only Earth like land on the planet. The Green Lady who says she hears the voice of “Maleldil” says that see is permitted to visit the fixed land but never to sleep upon it. This is the one directive she has been given (This replaces eating the fruit of the tree of wisdom in this story).

Then a spaceship crash lands on the planet and it is none other than Weston’s ship. Weston is not actually Weston though, he has been possessed by some sort of demon, some servant of the “Bent One.” It is of course this creature’s mission to convince the Green Lady to sleep on the fixed land.

When the Green Lady is around, the demon is completely eloquent like a professor of history who never tires. However, when she sleeps or goes away, the demons turns into an almost mindless thing that speaks only in grunts and catches Venus’ frog like creatures so that he can slice them open and watch them die.

The fascinating thing about “Weston’s” attempts to convince the Green Lady to sin is that both him and Ransom are not allowed to lie. Ransom tries at some point and finds he can’t. So Weston tells the Green Lady story after story about strong willed women that went against the laws of the land and/or disobeyed their fathers for what they thought was right. He spoke about how sometimes these woman suffered severe consequences but it paved the way for a better life for their children and countrymen.

I found this aspect of the novel to be absolutely fascinating because we think of the devil as the “God of Lies” he tells you half-truths and tricks you into sinning. Here the devil is forced to use logic and truth to make his point and he continuously gives Ransom a run for his money in this battle of wits.

So I expected from Ransom to pull some sort of intellectual rabbit out of his hat at the end of the book. I mean, a warrior of God bears the armor of God, the belt of truth, etc. Ephesians 6:10-17. But instead Ransom is forced to resort to violence in order to defeat his foe. First Ransom beats the tar out of Weston’s body. Weston runs away and hops a ride on a fish. Ransom grabs another fish and follows him for hours and hours. When night falls they are in the middle of the ocean and neither of them know where they are.

The real Weston takes control of his body again and says that he has been to hell and that God has no authority there. He says the “Bent One” is the true God because the “Old One” only has authority over the living and life is only 70 years at the most while death is eternal and inescapable.

Then the demon gains control again and lunges at Ransom. They are both plunged into the ocean in the middle of the night. After flailing around in the darkness for some time Ransom finds that he has washed up on shore. It is still pitch black. The demon has washed up near him. In the darkness Ransom find the demon and repeatedly bashes his head against the rocks until he is positive he is dead. Ransom waits a very long time and the sun never comes up, eventually Ransom reasons that he is in some sort of subterranean (or is it subvenetean) cave. So Ransom spends the rest of the novel trying to find his way out of the cave. Along the way the Weston demon shows up once more. This time the body travels even though it is dead, so it’s like some kind of zombie. Ransom attacks it again and when it is subdued he pushes in into a fire pit and watches it burn.

In the last few pages of the novel Ransom find the Edils of Mars and Venus in the cave as well as the Green Lady and the King. They tell him that the fixed land had been forbidden because it needed generations to form, but that now it is ready for the Green Lady and the King to live on and it is on this land and in the caves that they will begin to form their civilization.

Basically from the moment when Ransom and Weston started chasing each other into the middle of the ocean on fishes’ backs, the novel started going downhill and never really recovered. I couldn’t understand why the novel didn’t just end. The endless journey of Ransom in the caves was a flashback to the boring travelogue around the surface of Venus at the start of the novel.

An interesting question raised in the novel is that Ransom continually says that God doesn’t repeat himself so he wonders how it is that the devil in the form of Weston seems to be inching closer and closer to victory as everyday he tells the “Green Lady” more and more stories. Whether or not God repeats himself isn’t the most interesting thing though, you see over the course of the two novels Ransom sees things on Mars and Venus that he believes inspired Earth mythology such as the Sorns are the inspiration for Cyclops. Late in this novel the Edil of Mars and Venus take human form and Ransom says that surely they inspired the mythical Venus and Mars themselves. This seems to be similar to the idea expressed at the end of "Childhood’s End" (Massive Spoilers ahead…) that the death of humanity was such a strong event it took a trip backwards in time down the human collective unconscious and made the image of the Overlords into the mythical image of the Devil. So all of that caused me to wonder whether Lewis was trying to say that the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis never really happened and that the story on Perelandra took a trip back through time too. My evidence for this is that if God doesn’t repeat himself, why is the story in Genesis and this story on Venus so similar?

One plot thread that never got developed was that the Green Lady and the King weren’t the only intelligent animals on Venus there seemed to be a race of Mermen in the planet’s ocean. Ransom wonders about them but never gets to know them because he can’t breath underwater. To me, this changes the whole book, I mean surely those are God’s creatures too, why does god make such a big deal about the Green Lady and the King, when there is already some sort of civilization on Venus? Also, you never find out if the Green Lady’s ancestors and the Mermen will one day have to fight for supremacy. That might be an interesting book.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Thoughts on "Out of the Silent Planet"...

First posted July 9, 2010, edited on July 12, 2010 after further examination of the book due to comments and discussion of the review.

As I was reading “Out of the Silent Planet” by C.S. Lewis, I thought of “The Wizard of Oz.” (The movie, I’ve never actually read any of the books). As you no doubt recall, the movie starts in black and white and then when Dorothy gets to Oz, it turns into a Technicolor film. I thought this book was science fiction during the trip to Malacandra (Mars), but after getting there the story becomes fantasy.

Okay, the stuff on the spaceship was far from being "hard science fiction," but for 1938 when it was written, this was remarkable. I liked how the ship was a sort of sphere and the gravity was towards the ship’s core so all the rooms were curved. It reminded me of the rotating ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Again, I’m thinking of the movie version). I also liked how Weston, the creator of the spaceship (and the book’s villain) was always so concerned with conserving power and air during the trip. There are too many science fiction stories were space travel is just routine like driving your car down the road to the next neighborhood. It’s just a more interesting story when space travel is still something difficult.

Like I said, when Ransom arrives on Malacandra, it switches to a fantasy story instantly. They get off the ship and Mars has an atmosphere, breathable air, and forests. You just have to say to yourself, “Okay, it’s going to be one of those stories.” In order to enjoy the story, you have to check the science portion of your brain at the door.

The main plot of the story is that Ransom a Philologist, a sort of linguist, was kidnapped by two men about to make their second trip to Malacandra (Mars). They think that the “natives,” Sorns, a large thin almost birdlike race several feet taller than man, demand a human sacrifice. You see, because Weston and his toady sidekick Devine don’t understand the alien language well, they think the aliens are primitive savages. In reality, they are intelligent and peaceful creatures. Anyway, Ransom believes he is going to be sacrificed too, so the first chance he gets he runs away into the strange world he’s just arrived at.

To understand this book, you have to understand that C.S. Lewis was a devote Christian. So he writes “Christian stories.” In this story the Christian elements are somewhat masked, God is called the “Old One” Jesus is “Maleldil,” and angels are Edil. All of them are interdimensional beings that live outside of linear time as we know it. The Devil, called “the Bent One” is a rogue Edil that betrayed the “Old One” and caused him to cut off direct communication with Earth through Edil. Earth is known as “Thulcandra” which translates to “the Silent Planet”

Weston, who as I mentioned is the story’s villain, is a human who believes that humanity’s destiny is to populate other planets in the solar system and then conquer other star systems and then rinse and repeat forever. Having grown up on Star Trek and having always been taught the American idea of “Manifest Destiny” in school, I must confess that a part of me agrees with Weston. I mean, didn’t Stephen Hawkins recently warn us that humanity must spread to other worlds if it is to survive?

On the other hand, sometimes I think of humans as a sort of locust. Like them, we are one of the only animals that destroys its own habitat. How can we spread humanity to other planets before we figure out how to live in harmony with this one?

According to Malacandran philosophy, each peoples and each planet have a certain amount of time and that’s it. Mars is a planet that is slowly becoming inhospitable to life, but the population just shrugs and says that’s the way of things.

In Lewis’ mind Malacandra is a planet in perfect harmony. The three intelligent alien species lived in peace. Each species felt valuable, no one group ruled over another. Ransom does not understand how three so different intelligent species could all live as equals, but he comes to realize that humanity really missed out on not having true brother species and later decides that humans so often keep pets because, without even realizing it, they are searching for the brotherhood of an equal.

My favorite of the three species are the Pfifltrigg, who unfortunately only really make a cameo in the novel. Ransom never goes to their territory, so the only one we really meet is in the capital city. The Pfifltrigg are tinkers and builders. But, they make things just because they enjoy it. They just build, build, build and then they give it away, kind of like the Doozers in Fraggle Rock. (Why do I keep going back to movies and tv today?)

Malacandra is ruled by Oyarsa, who is an Edil. Lewis wants the reader to believe Oyarsa is a fair ruler, but the truth is he’s just as dark and evil a creature as Weston or the “Bent One.” Oyarsa tells a story that thousands of years ago he feared his people might decide to make skyships and flee Mars, because even then it was known Mars was a dying planet. So Oyarsa nipped the rebellion in the bud before it got started by killing almost everyone, “Some I cured, other I unbodied” he said. Oyarsa says his actions were justified because though the civilization on Malacandra is not sustainable they do not know “fear, murder and rebellion.” Oyarsa is an Edil, he is not all-knowing. He has obviously made a mistake and refuses to admit it. I think he has broken the Social Contract he has with his people in Malacandra and should be removed. Maybe there is some other nice young Edil that can take over. As I already mentioned I don’t think I could accept a ruler that said, “Yes, the planet is dying but you should just accept it.” I’d want to preserve my people, and my people’s collective knowledge.

Overall, I felt like the religious aspects of “Out of the Silent Planet” were somewhat in the background. The story meshes science with religion (God is an interdimensional super being that lives out of linear time as we understand it) so completely that the story stands on it’s own as a piece of speculative fiction without only becoming a pseudo religious text.

The second novel of the series “Perelandra” unfortunately never develops into anything more than a pseudo religious text, but that’s a story for another review.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Thoughts about "On the Waterfront"

I feel really bad for "throwing it under the bus," because I think a lot of people love this movie, but I watched "On the Waterfront" over the weekend and I just didn't get why this movie is such a classic.

The first thing that really bothered me is the Leonard Bernstein soundtrack. During the film whenever anyone starts showing the slightest emotion the orchestral music swells and distracts from the acting. Basically, I wish I could have erased the music.

Yes, Marlone Brando gives a great performance, but I didn't think the script gave his character Terry Malone much growth. He starts off as kind of a dimwitted ex-boxer that only thinks about himself and by the end of the movie I guess we are supposed to think he’s learned to think about other people, but he testifies because the villain had his brother murdered, so has Terry learned altruism or simply revenge? In fact, I thought all of the characters where kind of one-note characters, the only other character with any growth was Eva Marie Saint’s Edie, who at the start of the film is a sheltered, but book-smart girl who doesn’t seem to have any experience with men and at the end of the film she’s fallen in love with Terry, but the movie doesn’t show how/if the relationship has made her grow/change.



My favorite scene without a doubt is the one where Terry and Edie are talking and she drops her glove. Terry picks it up and starts playing with it. I've always heard that this part wasn't scripted, but improvised. It really makes the scene because it's not just Brando that's improvising Saint is right there with him because at the end of the scene she pulls the glove off his hand and it all seems so natural, so real. Unfortunately it’s one diamond among a pile of coal.






Possibly the film’s biggest problem is that it can’t decide what kind of a villain Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) is. In his first scene, Friendly talks about how he started as a nobody and carved out a crime empire. This led me to believe he was an effective and smart villain. However, in the same first scene Friendly does two incongruous things: first he repeatedly refuses to count stacks of money saying it makes his head hurt. I let this go at first thinking he must be the hands-off type. Then someone else counts a stack and says a guy was short $50 bucks and Friendly goes nuts on the guy and tells him he doesn’t work in this town anymore. For someone who can’t be bothered to count his own money, the money sure means a lot to him. I guess we are supposed to think that the money doesn’t mean as much to him as trust does?



The next questionable scene takes place when it seems like Terry is going to testify. Friendly talks to Terry’s brother Charley. Charley is one of Friendly’s Lieutenants. Charley is the reason why Terry has always gotten a free ride, Friendly has kept Terry happy because it makes Charley happy and by that logic, Friendly is willing to do so much for Charley because he is a really great Lieutenant. But the fact that Terry might testify is just too much, Friendly gives Charley an ultimatum, he tells him he has to kill his brother or else. Now here comes the curious part, he lets him go take care of it on his own! If I was a really smart crime boss who had built a crime empire from nothing, I’d probably be pretty careful. If I’d given a man an ultimatum that backed him into a corner I’d probably be concerned he might decide to betray me. So you take a bunch of guys you can trust and you go with Charley and you make sure he kills his brother and if he can’t, you kill both of them. The one thing you don’t do is let him go off alone so he can formulate some sort of plan. Luckily, Charley did something even more boneheaded. He’s in the back of a car with his brother; up front some unnamed hoodlum is driving the car. Charley openly discusses betraying Friendly. You can see how horrified the driver is and so it is absolutely no surprise when Charley is dead a few scenes later. Did Charley think the hoodlum was loyal to him before Friendly? Maybe they were really good friends, and he trusted the unnamed hoodlum completely. But the unnamed guy had secret ambitions and his betrayal was not unlike Iago’s betrayal of Othello, a saga of unbelievable evil. But unfortunately the movie doesn’t give us the slightest hint.

Okay, the next scene of interest is the court scene. Terry gives about a two sentence confession on the stand. They ask him if he knows who killed Joe Doyle, he says Friendly ordered some guys to do it. That’s all he says and it seems that’s all the evidence the Crime Commission has: one man’s testimony. If Friendly was smart he’d understand that they still have nothing and all he has to do is play it cool. Instead Terry gets off the stand and Friendly goes into a blind rage and starts screaming at Terry and punching him. This outburst made him look guilty whereas the testimony hadn’t really been all that damning.

Okay, so Friendly and his boys are the Union leaders for the dockworkers. They make their money from…I never quite figured that out. Okay, so Friendly and his boys control whether a dockworker works on any given day. They also control what jobs any given guy has. We know this because Terry Malone was given a job where he doesn’t actually have to work. But the catch is that Friendly doesn’t own the boats or the cargo. That’s all owned by an overweight bald guy who we see only twice in the movie: First he is watching the court proceedings when Terry testifies. He just sort of grumbles when Friendly goes “ape-shit” on Terry afterwards. Then we see him at the end of the movie. He stands at the doorway to the docks and waits for the bloody and beat up Terry to report for work, because none of the workers will work unless he is working too. If the fat man didn’t somehow benefit from whatever deal he had with Friendly, why did he let him run the workers for so many years?

This movie’s director, Elia Kazan is legendary. I’m a big fan of his film “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but this movie was clearly an attempt by him to justify his testimony to the House Un-American activities Committee (HUAC). You see, Kazan was a Communist for a year and a half from 1934 and 1936. Then twenty years later, the HUAC was questioning “known communists” and trying to get them to name names. It was a witch-hunt and Kazan eventually caved and named 8 people. Then the following year he made this movie where the theme of the movie turns out to be how much of a hero you can be if you have the courage to testify. Knowing this background made what seems on the surface to be a movie about silly and evil mobsters seem to be about much more and it made it seem almost insidious, like if we thought Brando’s Terry Malone was right for testifying then we had to think Kazan must have been right for testifying too, right? Only they were two completely different situations. When I listened to Father Barry’s (Karl Madden) impassioned speeches about standing up to the union and having the courage to speak out, I thought they were kind of over-the-top, but when I think about them in the context of the HUAC, they absolutely disgust me.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Thoughts on "Contact"


Carl Sagan's "Contact" is a great concept and is very well written in some parts, I especially enjoyed the beginning where the reader follows Ellie Arroway through her childhood.

However, the novel suffers from being kind of flat. It's a 432 page novel (all page numbers are according to the hardcover edition I got from the library) and I got the feeling someone told Sagan that's how long a "real" novel had to be. There seems to be some filler in the form of tangents where Sagan introduces all sorts of extra science fiction elements into his near future world.

But I'll focus on those tangents later, but first I want to explain why I thought the story was flat. On about p 106 Arroway and the other scientists discover the 10,000 page encrypted message from the Vegans (Did anyone else read the first mention of Vegans as talking about those vegetarians that don't eat dairy?) but they can't decipher the message. So, they wait for the message to repeat, hoping that at the beginning of the message is a "primer," a key to the encryption. Then around p 234 they figure out that there is no primer, but they end up figuring the message out without one. It's only about 100 pages, but it felt like a lot more while I was reading the book. This section was kind of bland, nothing was happening, it just felt like the story had no momentum.

I didn't like the religious aspects of the book until the end of the novel. When the evangelist characters Joss and Rankin were introduced I felt like they were just "strawman" characters, whose only purpose was to be beaten by Arroway and science. When Arroway debated them, I thought that the two of them were made to look like jokes. I'm no preacher, but I felt like I could have put up a better argument against Arroway.

I think that religion comes down to faith. God, in the Christian sense, doesn't show himself in an absolute fashion because he wants us to choose to follow him. He wants us to choose to be "good people" not out of fear, but because of a belief that it's just the right way to live. Because philosophies like "love your neighbor as yourself" and "turn the other cheek" are worthy philosophies to aspire to.

I was happy to see that the ending dovetailed: Arroway who questioned religion because of a lack of absolute proof, received first hand proof of aliens and many other wonders in her journey across the galaxy, but she only had her words to share with others. She had become exactly what she criticized. She expected the rest of the world to believe her story and her philosophy without any physical evidence.

The very end of the novel puts a further spin on the ending when a computer finds a message buried deep inside the exponents of Pi, a binary code that translates to a circle. The novel purports that this is the proof Arroway needed for people to believe her story. I'm more skeptical of human nature and figure that the average person would either figure it was a coincidence, or not be able to wrap their head around how deep the number was buried in Pi and just figure it's not true.

I just thought I should note that in 2009 Pi was calculated to 2.5 trillion digits and no sequence of ones and zeroes or binary circles were found, but it was a fun idea, wasn't it?

Okay, I promised I'd get back to those tangents. The first one, around page 223 is all about a theme park called "Babylon" that is somewhere 30 minutes from Manhattan by train, but still subject to NYC laws, so it must be in Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx.

By day Babylon had neat architecture, fun rides, games and tasty food, but by night Babylon was an adult theme part where men and woman could play out sexual fantasies with prostitutes.

I know there is a real market for prostitution, but I find it impossible to believe that it could ever be coupled with a family friendly tourism industry. Sure Las Vegas is a tourist trap, but I've never seen it advertised as a family-get-away destination.

The other tangent is when Arroway goes up to a space station and there are a small number of elite super rich men who believe that living in the weightlessness of space is going to prolong their lives. Everything I've read about the effects of weightlessness suggest that it's long term effects are harmful. Here is what Wiki said:

The most significant adverse effects of long-term weightlessness are muscle atrophy and deterioration of the skeleton, or spaceflight osteopenia. These effects can be minimized through a regimen of exercise. Astronauts subject to long periods of weightlessness wear pants with elastic bands attached between waistband and cuffs to compress the leg bones and reduce osteopenia. Other significant effects include fluid redistribution (causing the "moon-face" appearance typical of pictures of astronauts in weightlessness), a slowing of the cardiovascular system, decreased production of red blood cells, balance disorders, and a weakening of the immune system. Lesser symptoms include loss of body mass, nasal congestion, sleep disturbance, excess flatulence, and puffiness of the face. These effects begin to reverse quickly upon return to the Earth.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weightlessness#cite_note-13

I especially enjoyed the part about increased flatulence. I just picture the men and woman on the International Space Station in a sort of reenactment of the famous beans scene in Blazing Saddles.

Finally, I wanted to mention my confusion about one passage in the novel. On page 277, Arroway is agonizing over Drumlin's death. She feels guilty because her first thoughts when he died were about herself. She thinks about men who for one reason or another she had admired "Drumlin. Valerian. Derr Heer. Hadden...Joss. Jesse... Staughton?...Her father."

Was the purpose of this passage just to foreshadow the revelation at the end of the book that Staughton was her biological father. When I read the passage the first time I was sure it had some sort of deeper significance. Like she was admitting to herself in some sort of Freudian way that she was sexually attracted to men she admired.

The other strange thing about the passage is that she doesn't mention Vaygay. Of the men in her life, he was my favorite. Clearly he was interested in her sexually, but he never pressured her. He just sort of left that option open to her. And in turn she developed a sort of relationship with him that went somewhere beyond friendship but only unconsciously on her part. Look at the way Arroway gets all "hot and bothered" when she thinks of the other women in his life.

I haven't yet seen the 1997 film. (It's next in my netflix cue). But I am looking forward to seeing how it differs from the novel. I see that Matthew McConaughey plays Joss and so I suspect Arroway and him will become romantically involved in the movie version. Off hand this doesn't make sense to me, though the end of the novel seems to imply that the two characters could get together after the events of the novel, because Arroway's experiences have given them new-found common ground.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Wizard Mask 2010






I recently had the privilege of being made into an old evil wizard by Jim LoSasso, a make-up artist for television and movies. What do you all think? By the way the woman in the last picture is my lovely wife, how's that for beauty and the beast?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Thoughts on Essential Doctor Strange Vol. 4

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Essential Doctor Strange Volume 4.

Having never read many issues of Doctor Strange me reviewing this collection is a bit like if I watched a random episode of Deadwood or the Wire or any other program with an ongoing plot I’m unfamiliar with; I can comment on what I saw, but I don’t know the background. So, if I’ve made wrong assumptions please forgive me.

The first thing up for discussion is magic according to the marvel universe. It just seems to be rather uniform. Every spell and counter spell is written in the Book of Vishanti. I’d say that’s pretty convenient. Can’t a learned sorcerer make up new spells? Also, I do not understand why the Vishanti are the most powerful Gods. Doctor Strange in this volume fights Nightmare, the Dweller-in-Darkness and the N’garai, but Strange wins because the Vishanti whom he draws power from just happen to be the most powerful force in all universes and realities. It doesn’t matter if Strange goes through a black mirror and into another dimension or if he travels into Dormammu’s Dark Dimension or Nightmare’s realm, the magic of the Vishanti prevails.

In fact, the magic of the Vishanti appears to be the only magic anywhere. Clea, Strange’s lover, who was the “firstborn of Orini, who is Suzerein to the dread Dormammu, ruler of my home dimension.” (Doctor Strange #45) My assumption would be that being from a dark dimension she would have some kick-ass black magic. I don’t want her to be evil or even a bad person, but it would just open up so many great storylines. Here is my idea: Clea was a bad person in her dimension. It’s not her fault she grew up in the dark dimension and had a skewed moral lessons. When Doctor Strange first came to her dimension and fought Dormammu she had a change of heart. Suddenly here was a man who believed in her and her potential for good when no one else would. She betrays Dormammu, helps Doctor Strange defeat him and then travels with Doctor Strange to his dimension. On Earth, Clea begins to train herself to use her black magic for good. She has powerful spells that she must use carefully in order to not permanently injure opponents. Since Doctor Strange is not familiar with black magic except for counter spells, Clea has much to teach him and in return Strange teaches Clea the magic of the Vishanti.

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This idea is unfortunately not the reality of the comics I read, instead Clea is a novice sorceress who is mentoring with Strange. He calls her his protégé even though she seems at times to be a bit of a hopeless case. When she admits that she lacks any self-confidence in her abilities Doctor Strange says he’s never been more sure that she should be his protégé. Strange seems to me to be blinded by his love for her, he’d be better off with almost anyone else as his protégé: what about Illyana Rasputin (aka Magik) Colossus’ sister or heck with his astral projection skills I think Charles Xavier would be a better candidate for Strange’s protégé.

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Later in that same issue Strange makes the more obvious attempt to boost Clea’s confidence. He is fighting a N’Garai, an Elder Demon God from another dimension in his basement. The demon has made Wong and two others into his servants and they are attacking Strange and Clea. Strange says “I know of a spell that can defeat this guy, it’s in the Book of Vishanti, I’ll go get it in astral form. You protect my body.” Okay, he is in his basement. All he and Clea have to do is make a strategic retreat upstairs. How is astral form any quicker? It’s not like he’s going to run into rush hour traffic trying to get upstairs in his body. And staying in his body has the advantage of not leaving his body completely helpless. It isn’t as if he knew Clea could handle Wong and the two other, on the page before he was having trouble fighting them. He recklessly risked his own life, his friends lives and probably the whole dimension just because his girlfriend was feeling a little down on herself.

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Okay, moving along, so Clea doesn’t have any magic different from the Vishanti, but surely evil sorcerers and sorceresses in other dimensions have some different spells. Nope. When Doctor Strange fights Shialmar ( the self-appointed sorceress supreme in another dimension (issue 44) she throws crystals of Cyndriarr at Strange and he thinks wow that spell is so powerful I haven’t used it, but it’s obviously in the Book of Vishanti because he knows the counter spell. Aren’t there different branches of magic, so that maybe one sorcerer specializes in healing magic and another in dark magic? No, in the Marvel Universe everyone knows every spell because it’s all written in one book.

Speaking of different dimensions why is it that no matter what dimension or realm Doctor Strange finds himself in, the laws of physics are also a constant. I mean I understand that one of the theories of alternate dimensions postulates that the laws of physics would be a constant throughout every dimension in the multiverse and I can accept that. But you’re telling me that the realm of Nightmare or the realm of the Dweller-in-Darkness are basically no different than Earth? That’s boring! I want to see Strange walking or astral projecting through realms beyond my imagination. I want him exploring an M.C. Escher or Salvador Dali inspired world where up is down and down is up. And when he tries to cast Flames of Faltine it causes roses to appear in the hands of his opponents and so he has to cast a spell for roses and then the flames appear.

I know it’s just a comic and it was written for a young adult audience, but doesn’t Doctor Strange make it look insanely easy to be Sorcerer Supreme. He has all the answers in one book. If I’d only had to read one book in order to get my Master’s Degree in Library Science, that would have been sort of fishy right? You’d wonder if I’d be able to perform all my duties. And I’m just a librarian; Doctor Strange is the protector of the Universe!

The other thing that leads me to the conclusion that his job is easy is that he only ever uses a handful of spells. It doesn’t matter if he’s fighting a monster, another sorcerer, or some sort of God like entity, the same couple of spells will always get the job done. Here they are, I bet you can list them with me:

Crimson Bands of Cytorrak
Flames of Faltine
Cloak of Levitation
Agamotto’s Light of Truth
Bolt of Bedevilment
Images of Ikonn
Shield of Seraphim

Despite my complaints, I did enjoy these issues and I’ll try to keep it more positive if and when I comment on individual issues and storylines.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Thought on "Oath of Fealty"




Oath of Fealty
Originally posted April 12, 2010
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ClassicScienceFiction/message/17909

"Oath of Fealty" is a good science fiction novel that falls short of being a great science fiction novel. "Fealty is the fourth novel I've read by the team of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. The others being "Lucifer's Hammer," "Footfall," and "Mote in God's Eye." Each of those 3 were undeniably brilliant. They were real page-turners that explored fascinating new worlds and new ideas. They had exciting characters and situations. This novel, written in-between "Lucifer" and "Footfall" just doesn't measure up.

The world of the story is: in the near future, about 20 years ago, just outside of Los Angeles a huge arcology called Todos Santos has been built. If you don't know what an arcology is don't feel bad. I had to read the description is Wikipedia too. Here is a link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arcology

This behemoth structure comfortably houses half a million people. Most of the residents never leave the structure which has everything from parks, to shops to restaurants, hospitals and funeral homes. But many of the people of Los Angeles resent this new city, they resent it's tax exemptions, they resent it's residents living in comfort while they're still poor. Many environmental groups are also against such structures because they believe they use too many natural resources to sustain them. One such group, the FROMATES has resorted to terrorist acts against arcologies in the past.

The characters in the novel are one of the weak points, there's no real protagonist which is okay if enough of the characters are fleshed out so that it feels like there are multiple protagonists. This was done effectively in "Footfall and "Lucifer's Hammer." In this novel you have a bunch of possibly interesting characters that you are never really given the chance to get to know. All you get is a glimpse. Maybe it was the length of the story that was the problem. The other Niven/Pournelle novels I've read were around 500 pages, this ones only 324.

The Plot

You're rolling along reading about this world and exploring the arcology for about 70 pages and just when you're starting to wonder when it's going to get good, Boom! the plot hits. There are terrorists inside Todos Santos. They're about the reach the hydrogen tanks. They could destroy the city. We see how tense the mood in the Todos situation room is. Preston Sanders, the second-in-command is forced to decide in his boss' place. He orders deadly gas vented into the chamber where the terrorists are. However, it turns out the so called terrorists were teens with sophisticated electrical equipment, but a box full of sand not explosives. And so Sanders is arrested and prosecuted by the Los Angeles DA because there is a question as to whether Sanders acted too rashly.

This situation was interesting because I felt like the social norms regarding terrorism have changed since this novel was written in 1981. What was clearly an ambiguous moral situation back then would be cut and dry today. Due to the rise in terrorist attacks and school shootings (since the 1999 Columbine Attack), we (America) just don't mess around anymore. I can't see anyone in Los Angeles defending the teens actions. The thinking would be, "if you act like a terrorist expect to be treated as one."

Security

There is an omnipresent security force in Todos Santos. However there is no reason to be afraid of them because there are bizarrely no courts or jails in Todos, that being one of the main points of the story that they are still under Los Angeles legal jurisdictions. This didn't really make any sense
to me.

Rather than being afraid of this ever present security force in some sort of "1984" like way, the citizens of Todos think of security as their friends. The citizen's thinking is summed up nicely in the memorable sequence of the toilet paper rope. The kids in Todos sometimes string toilet paper rope over Todos' high speed moving platforms. Only tourists duck, Todos citizens believe if it was anything that could hurt them security would stop it. The citizen believe that since security is always watching they are protected. However we learn in one of the first chapters that security watches the citizens randomly so many incidents are likely to go unnoticed, so anyone depending on security to protect them should eventually be hurt or killed.

I don't think this feeling of complete safeness is healthy at all. What about when they leave Todos, they are likely to forget they aren't in Todos and get hurt or killed by a mugger or something. And as I mentioned before even in Todos they aren't really safe, they just feel safe.

The Newsman

One of the more enigmatic characters in the novel is Thomas Lunan, a TV news reporter that focuses on the big picture story of what life is like in Todos Santos and what kind of a culture has developed in this new society. Rather than the obvious story most reporters are focused on, the terrorism story.

At one point Lunan makes a documentary about Todos Santos and talks about how safe Todos is compared to Los Angeles. He contrasts light- hearted scenes of Todos security watching over it's citizens, walking a drunk man home, helping a teen locate her father; with a scene of Lunan's own neighborhood in Los Angeles. Lunan parks his expensive car in a seemingly falling apart garage and walks several blocks to his apartment where all of his nice possessions are similarly camouflaged in a seemingly run down building. However, it doesn't seem to dawn on Lunan that he just put a video on TV which explains exactly how to rob him! One of the other characters notices this while watching the documentary and quips "he better be moving tomorrow." But sadly, you find out later that the night the documentary aired Lunan was in his apartment entertaining a lady friend. He's really lucky he didn't get them both killed.

Later on, Lunan participates in a jail break organized by the Todos top-brass even though he knows he can never do a story on it or even ever talk about it. Why would he do that? I could buy that the Todos story changed him, but at the end of the novel Lunan makes it clear that he is still a newsman and wouldn't want to live in Todos.

Second Attack

The novel features a second terrorist attack on Todos, which though this time the terrorists are clearly a threat, it never gripped me the way the first attack did because it felt like just more of the same. I think the second attack should have been something different instead of another scene of terrorists crawling through some sort of maintenance shaft towards hydrogen tanks again. Why didn't the terrorists strike unexpectedly in the city's mall or a crowded restaurant?

The Ending

It seemed as if all the plot threads were wrapped up about 20 pages before the end of the novel and I actually put the book down for an evening thinking,"20 pages of epilogue, boring." but it turns out the book redeems itself, Niven and Pournelle still had a curveball, the last 20 pages were quite good.

Basically, for the whole novel the leaders of Todos are forced to decide whether they are going to become exactly what Los Angeles, Thomas Lunan, and the FROMATES accuse them of being, a nation state, a castle, a new independent civilization. And in the end Todos decides to stay a part of the larger world, it's an optimistic ending, but it works.