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Preview: Books Under the Bridge

Books Under the Bridge



Two readers share their recommendations for science-fiction and fantasy literature. Additional opinions offered at no extra charge.



Updated: 2017-08-04T16:27:29.905-03:00

 



Currently reading

2011-03-11T17:13:47.922-04:00

I'm currently reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. Really good read so far. Witty, British, and very different from my usual reads.

However, I can't get over the idea of David Tennant as Jonathan Strange, if there's ever a movie rendition of the book. If that ever happened, I wouldn't miss it. He might have to tone down his natural wackiness a bit, but I think he'd be marvelous for the part.

Tennant was my favorite of the new Doctor Whos (although Eccleston was also fun), and excellent in Hamlet with Patrick Stewart. Maybe I just want him to be in the JS&MN movie because I've turned into a fan. :)



NaNoWriMo update

2010-05-25T15:31:32.670-03:00

So, NaNoWriMo ended a while back, December 1 to be precise. I started late, and gained about a 5000-word deficit early on. In mid-November, I'd crawled back within 3000 words of where I needed to be, and slipped back in the hole numerous times. By Thanksgiving, I had kept pace, but hadn't gotten out of that hole.

Then came Black Friday. I don't do Black Friday. It's annoying, and a waste of time and effort. Well, this year, I got hooked: Old Navy was offering Lego Rock Band, for FREE.

To make a long story short, I sat out in front of Old Navy on a cold sidewalk for about 3 hours, just to score a free game. But more importantly, during that time I wrote like crazy, coming within just two-thousand words of the 50000-word goal. Thanks to that night, the next few days of writing were a cake walk, and I won my first NaNoWriMo.

Aftermath

Since then, I've let my story sit idle. As part of winning, I have the option to print out a free paperbound hardcopy at CreateSpace. I'm not about to pass up that, so it has lit a fire under me to get the story in decent shape. Three weeks ago, I began revising. Since then, I've even sent a few chapters to a friend to read. It's progress, and progress is good.

What's the Story About?

That's a good question, and although I want to answer in detail, I will be vague instead: It's a space opera, set in an age of recent devastation and decline. Faster-than-light travel no longer works, and cryogenics never did. No one's expecting help to arrive, so those remaining in this small, cut-off solar system will have to make the best of what's left.



Weak Sauce and NaNoWriMo

2009-11-09T13:32:37.274-04:00

So, I went to the trouble to make a post about NaNoWriMo last week, and I was all excited about all the writing I was going to do. Then, I started reading the NaNoWriMo site, and I thought to myself, "Man, a page a day? A page?! That's so weak."

So that day I began brainstorming. Suddenly, some strange and wonderful ideas that had been kicking around in my head over the years, but had never occurred to me to be story-worthy coalesced into a story outline that looked like a lot of fun to write. The day after, I signed up for NaNoWriMo and began writing.

I'm deep into novel mode now, going ahead at full steam. I'm still behind because of my late start, but I'm hoping to catch up later this week. It's a lot of work, but I'm loving it so far.

You can find my on the NaNoWriMo page, here.

Words written to date: 9341
Goal: 50000 words by 11:59 Nov 30



Goodbye October, Hello NaNoWriMo

2009-11-02T16:20:19.489-04:00

I popped one last peanut M&M and headed to the bathroom to shave off my pirate beard. I was a little sad to see it go, and it was resistant to my straight razor as well (me being too lazy to hit it with the clippers first). But as the razor stripped each patch of hair, I felt comforted. I had my old face back, and to be honest, I looked a lot less silly. It also signaled an ending, mostly just the ending of October and the Halloween season. But staring at myself in the mirror, I looked forward to November.

November is NaNoWriMo.

I've been writing off and on lately, after taking a break from any kind of extracurricular activities that could be considered "work." Having a new child and holding down a day job and a personal life with variable sleeping hours are mostly to blame, but I love my family, and I wouldn't trade the last few months.

As of October 30, I still hadn't jumped back on the writing wagon fully, however. And I've always wanted to partake in NaNoWriMo. So, on November 1st, I set aside some time for my characters. I wrote pages of prose. They weren't great, and they weren't for a novel, but so what. They exist, and they've given previously-inert pages a semblance of life. Awesome.

My goal for November is to write at least a page of text each day, whether it be for blog, short story, or novel. I want to get into the spirit enough to write for a novel, too, so I'm dedicating at least 15 of those pages to a new novel idea I've been thinking about lately.

The score as of Nov 2:
Blog pages: 1
Novel pages: 0
Short story pages: 1
Total pages: 2



The Writing Life

2009-01-15T14:50:02.772-04:00

I have been busy busy busy. Child-rearing, vacationing, and dealing with a household of sick people, with only the occasional time-out to read something fun.

However, I've been writing consistently, which has been something that I've wanted to do for a long time.

My big enemy is perfectionism. It's a nasty beast. It prevents me from writing:

"But how do I start?"
"It won't be any good."
"It's going to be so much work to make it even passable! Why bother?"

Then, when I actually do produce something, it cries in its whiny voice:

"Oh, these characters aren't realistic at all."
"This writing is slack," followed by, "Now it's so brief you can't tell what's going on!"
"Gah, how booooring! No one's even gonna read this to the end!"
"Are you serious?! Even Mister Troll writes better than this! A freakin' troll!"

But I've been getting past it lately. I've been able to do this sporadically in the past, but never for this long of a stretch. It's nice to finally give that little internal critic the kick in the teeth he deserves.

Still, he may be right on some of those things. I'm not the perfect writer. But that's okay.

Just gotta keep telling myself that.

As Mister Troll has told you, I've been putting a lot of my time into my new project, Iron & Ash. I'm happy to say that I'm proud of it. It won't be everyone's favorite, but I hope it appeals to some of you. It's an experiment for me in multiple ways. Not only is it long-form serialized fiction in blog format (an exciting new style for me), but there's plenty of writing there that pushes me into scary territory, makes me uncomfortable. I'm pushing my boundaries on this one, trying not to over-sanitize everything (something I tend to do with this site, which makes the writing more difficult in some ways). And I'm happy to say that it contains some of my best work to date.

If you're interested, go check out Iron & Ash. Be sure to start at the beginning if you want to catch the whole story.



Iron & Ash

2009-01-11T16:47:57.942-04:00

It's time for me to introduce (again) Billy Goat's new blog: Iron & Ash. Please check it out!

From the first post:

Kean told me to calibrate the starscopes this morning. A thrill ran up my spine and I sprinted to the north tower. I rushed through the empty courtyard. The kennel flew by and I played my hand across its old fencework, the dogs barking and howling in greeting. I took the footworn steps of the tower two and three at a time, and when I reached the top of that old, leaning tower, my breath had left me.



Interruptions...

2008-12-22T00:02:43.490-04:00

Oh, dear. Not since November?

Although I've been much too busy lately to post here, I have had several things I wanted to share. Some thoughts on the rather unremarkable Soylent Green (but the author of the original novel says all I wanted to say, and more). The very lovely novel Outback Stars (Sandra McDonald) and its slightly less interesting sequel The Stars Down Under.

Unfortunately I just haven't had the time. The problem is that my partner on this blog, the venerable Billy Goat, has started a very new (and I think very interesting) project. Somehow I got suckered into writing PHP code for his new project, and it's turned into a surprisingly devilish code-feast.

At any rate, I think it's time to link to the new blog: Iron & Ash. The first post will be up on January 1st. Billy Goat's ready to roll but he's on vacation in internetless climes, so it's up to me to finish debugging, testing, and do the launch. (Again, how do I get suckered into this?)

I'll be continuing to make behind-the-scenes contributions until it's really running steadily, so I'm afraid this blog may very well languish unattended. But I really think you're going to enjoy what we're up to. Please visit Iron & Ash in January, leave a comment for BG, and above all else, admire the lovely text formatting: drop-capitals, smart quotes, em-dashes, ellipses. (Yes, I'm fishing... I've earned it!)

See you there!



Recommended: The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt

2008-11-13T19:51:19.329-04:00

Stephen Hunt's The Court of the Air contains guns, magic, card-punch computers, monsters, hot air balloons, and more. If you haven't seen anything like this before, then you've never seen Steam Punk. However, Hunt takes the already-flavorful magical-old-world-meets-old-tech blend of Steam Punk and cranks it up about three notches by adding in an intense political landscape and a religious movement that plays off the bloody rituals of the Aztecs. Hunt lays it all out, and stashes a crazy surprise for the reader around every corner. And it all works nicely, blending interesting ideas that might otherwise be found in Sci-Fi into an action-packed story.The majority of The Court of the Air takes place in a kingdom called Jackals. Like England of our world, it's ruled by a parliament. However, sessions of parliament regularly devolve into brawls, and challenges of leadership are settled with duels using "debating sticks." The kingdom is protected by its legendary aerostatical navy, which is a fleet of airships that outclass the simpler hot air balloons used by rival countries. As if that wasn't protection enough, the navy is backed up by the King's Special Guard, a squad of soldiers with fantastical superhero-like powers. And Jackals is just the beginning of Hunt's world. Next door lies the Steamman Free State, a state populated by intelligent steam-powered robots. On another border lies the Caliphate, where womb-magery, a nasty (shudder-worthy in fact) form of magically-enhanced genetic engineering, is openly practiced. Underneath Jackals runs a vast underground populated by criminals, refugees, revolutionaries, and an ancient entity or two.The Court of the Air features two protagonists. The first is Molly Templar, a poor-house girl with a knack for the mechanical. Her life changes abruptly when hired killers slaughter the poor house in search of her. The second is Oliver Brooks, a young man with a mysterious past. Through his uncle's friend, the disreputable Harry Stave, he becomes entangled in the intrigues of the secret society known as the Court of the Air. From here, the two protagonists travel their own unique paths to discover a threat that endangers not only Jackals, but the world as well.I really enjoyed this book. Like most Steam Punk, fantastical contraptions and equally fantastical descriptions fill the book. For any fan of the genre, these are fun and expected. However, there's plenty that make this book stand on its own. Three things in particular hit me. The first was the world, which is dirty and grimy, and comes complete with a veritable Pandora's toolbox of problems. These problematic, mismatched tools of technology, magic, religion, and politics work together to make the world distraught and conflicted, and thus very interesting. The excellent world building has an added bonus of creating characters with a lot of depth. Many of the minor characters benefit from the complexities and contradictions of their world, including one of my favorites, the villainous yet genteel Count Vauxtion.The inclusion of the Aztec-like religion was the second hit. Although the names of the insectoid god-things feels a little like Nahuatl syllable soup (take an Aztec name, mix up some syllables), the combination of the fearsome religion known best for its rituals of human sacrifice with the alien insect mind works very well. I have a strong interest in Mexican-American history and culture, so this was a bonus for me. However, I think that these potent villains should provide a menacing thrill for even the casual reader.The final hit was the steammen. With their curious and stoic religion (religious robots!) and wide variety of design and personality, they steal the show. From the disgraced, gruff warrior Steamswipe, to the philosophical "slipthinker" (think: multiprocessor brain able to remotely control multip[...]



Some quick thoughts on science

2008-11-08T18:36:00.716-04:00

Pop quiz! Let's test your science IQ.

Question 1: Scientists discover a correlation between rain (environmental factor) and autism in a few specific geographic locations. Should we conclude rain causes autism?

The first news article served up by The Google: "The public shouldn't jump to conclusions because these studies are valuable only after being repeatedly confirmed". Full credit to Mr. Paul Nyhan. Disturbingly, Scientific American offered no such disclaimer.

This kind of result is what I call hypothesis generation. We should not draw conclusions from this study, but the result is at best intriguing enough to suggest that perhaps we should now test the hypothesis that increased rainfall causes autism. For bonus credit: how would you test this hypothesis?

By the way, it's well known that autism is linked to genetics. Environmental triggers may also play a role, but scientists don't yet know what those triggers are (if they exist). Many environmental triggers have been suggested in the past. As far as rain goes, the news reports that I read mostly speculated about sunlight exposure. (I immediately questioned whether mold could be implicated, but this is pure speculation.)

Note that it is very important to read the original study to judge the scientific merits of any claims, as I've grumbled about elsewhere. In today's post, I refer solely to secondary literature (news on the interwebs).

Question 2: Health officials recommend pregnant women and children avoid eating game killed with lead bullets. Spot the logical errors in this news report.

The article as given on CNN has at least two leaps of logic that I see. (The original CDC report might include data that support the assertions made here, but unfortunately I can't seem to track it down to check.)

Final thoughts on vaccines, autism, and toxicity (or, blatantly trolling for the anti-vaccine crowd): I've read some internet rumors that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. might be asked to serve in the Obama administration. Great Humperdinck, no! Anyone who fails basic scientific literacy regarding vaccines and autism (try this or this for critiques) should not be serving in any high-level government role.

What's next, banning aluminum because it's "toxic"? Ooh, ooh -- iodine! Vitamin A! Iron! All poisons promoted by government conspiracies! We're poisoning the children!

Scientific literacy: It's Important.



Gremlins 2

2008-10-26T23:19:00.457-03:00

At the recommendation of commenter, I checked out Gremlins 2. (See the original thread here.)

Yikes. Where to start... orientalism, stereotyping Asian tourists, transvestite jokes. My notes even mentioned child molestation, but thankfully I can't actually remember to what that referred!

(Yeah, I take notes during movies. You gotta problem with that?)

On the plus side: 80's hair and clothes, yoghurt bars, mad-scientist twins (twins!).

I still can't decide whether Hulk Hogan's cameo falls into the plus or minus category.

The movie was off to a promising start: it didn't take itself seriously. The kid tries to convince security guards about the thread of the gremlins, and the guards just laugh at him. "Hey kid, if we can't feed them after midnight, what happens if... you put one on a plane, and it crosses a timezone?" But the movie stopped being funny after that.

For example, the movie tried reference the first Gremlins movie and/or purchasable accessories as many times as possible. This is disgusting commercialism. Never mind that it was an attempt at irony; no. In fact, a cable show announcer tried ripping into the first movie. "It's just mindless violence perpetrated on innocent people; this is trash!" he proclaims. In fact, he spends quite a lot of time dwelling on how bad the first Gremlins movie is. Don't buy the VHS tape, he says.

No, no, no. This isn't irony. These movies are mindless trash. Wrecking a skyscraper, mindlessly killing and maiming people -- not funny. Pointing out what the movies are -- also not funny. Not irony.

Please, folks. Do me a favour. Don't buy the VHS tape.



The Pilgrim

2008-10-19T23:38:01.008-03:00

A recent find from the used bookstore: Way of the Pilgrim by Gordon Dickson, an author I'd not actually heard of before.

It's very easy to summarize: aliens have invaded earth, and the resistance movement seeks a leader.

In many ways, this was a great book. The aliens, the Aalaag, are shown to be different from humans -- most sci-fi has aliens that act like humans wearing funny suits. Not so in this novel; every time the main character, Shane Evert, thinks he understands his master, he suddenly learns that he didn't understand them at all. And Shane is by far the most able to understand the aliens: as a natural polyglot, he speaks the Aalaag language almost fluently. The rest of the humans, and particularly the resistance movement, are laughably ignorant about the Aalaag's intentions and motivations.

That interplay between what-is-human and what-is-alien was really neat to see.

I also enjoyed the slow process by which Shane was drawn into the fight against the Aalaag. He, more than any other human, understands that such a fight cannot be won, and only slowly does he decide that the fight is worth making.

In other ways, the novel was a bit flat. The personalities are... dull. Dickson's treatment of women characters was juvenile; this was written in 1999? It reads more like a 1950's novel -- we can overlook subtle (or not) misogyny in novels from less-enlightened times (Heinlein, anyone?), but for a novel published less than a decade ago? Baffling.

I enjoyed the novel, but I'd recommend it mostly for light reading.



What makes a good children's story?

2008-10-12T23:19:00.971-03:00

I've been musing lately on what makes a good children's story. There are, of course, as many styles of stories as authors, but in particular I've been thinking about the typical "zany" story.Harry Potter, for example--although I'm not personally a big fan--is based largely around characters stumbling through really loopy situations. The Sorting Hat, Platform 9 and three-quarters, the utterly bizarre rules of Quidditch. (Think about it--would you really put your life on the line for a game in which only one member of your team gets to score beaucoup points? This game would not be fun.)For an example that I like, how about Alice's Adventures in Wonderland? I hardly need to point out how bizarre the story is, but darn it, it's so fun!Maybe the key to a children's story is hyperbole? It's the difference between a bowl of vanilla ice cream and a double-heaping waffle cone of rocky road ice cream with an extra scoop of mint chocolate chip, with whipped cream, hot fudge, and a cherry on top. (Mmm... actually, that sounds good!) Anyway, my point is: a "typical" children's story (if there is such a thing) paints with bold colours.How about the The Hobbit? It does have long stretches of serious, but these are always broken by the bumbling antics of hobbits or dwarves. The dishes consumed at the introductory feast, for example, is pure hyperbole. The trolls--surely we're meant to laugh at both the trolls and the dwarves? Let's consider the Lemony Snicket stories: An Interminable Series of Events (something like that, I think). These stories are all based around bizarre situations. Yet... Lemony Snicket just doesn't have the sparkle of a good story. And what's the difference?I don't know.It's not the melancholy--I would hardly object to that. It's not really the length, although certainly one does suspect the stories were split into so many volumes in order to maximize profits. The characters of the children ought to be endearing--and they just aren't.I also deliberately picked this example, because opinions are of course so subjective. There are quite a lot of fans of Lemony Snicket out there, who would vehemently disagree with my opinion! (I'd take on Harry Potter instead, but I value my life.)I started thinking about this issue because I recently read The Wind Singer (William Nicholson), which had all the promise of a lovely story. Two children (twins!) are exiled from the authoritarian city of Aramanth. They decide to go on a journey to rescue the key to the "wind singer", a legendary device that will purportedly bring happiness to the city. Naturally (because that's just how this works) the key to the wind singer is kept by the all-powerful Morah, some sort of evil overlord who lives off in some vague direction.I thought for sure this was going to be a good story. Charming characters, charming background, the possibility for fun situations. And oh, oh, no, it was not.Lessons for budding authors out there. Unless you are Victor Hugo (and you aren't), don't send your characters fleeing through the sewage of a major city. Eww! That's not fun! I don't care if they do meet friendly sewage dwellers, who eat the stuff--eww! And also, you shouldn't have any disgusting characters tag along for the ride. The, err, intellectually challenged classmate Mumpo turns out to also be a major character (surprise!). He's repulsive, generally covered in snot and drool, in love with one of the twins, and he has no redeeming qualities. Awkward. Not just for the twins, but for the readers. Is this supposed to be funny? It just made me uncomfortable.The story is an utter flop--yet how do I say it's so different from other children's stories? How is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland genius, and The Wind Singer utter crap? [...]



The Blob

2008-10-05T23:21:00.523-03:00

Finally! I had promised myself (and our readers) to watch... The Blob.

The quick summary (but really, who doesn't know?): some blobby alien thing lands on earth and starts oozing around, eating up people. (Obviously a winner with this plot!)

Great movie! It was clearly a low-budget movie, but that often helps. The focus isn't on the special effects, but actually a bit on the plot. A couple of teenage kids, and occasionally their friends, run about town at night. They try to help an old stranger; they drag-race with their friends; they meekly submit to the police -- and then of course sneak out of the house later at night. After a while, the kids realize what's going on, and they try to warn the sleepy little town. Alas, the blob has already grown in size; a horrible death for the love interest's little brother is imminent!

True, at the end of the movie, the special effects did get a bit strained. And the acting... well, we're not graced with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Hey, we'll settle for Steve McQueen.

And who doesn't want to spend an evening reveling in 50's suburban icons? Poodle dresses, bobby socks, and saddle shoes... midnight showings of horror movies at the theater... the classic diner! And space paranoia*!

I was totally born in the wrong decade. Sigh.

(For an excellent review, see here.)


* No communists, though, that I recall. And I don't quite remember whether I caught a glimpse of a nuclear fallout shelter in town... maybe I'm confusing that with another movie. So it's true this movie didn't hit quite all the icons of the 50's, alas.



The Five People You Meet in Heaven

2008-09-27T23:40:00.330-03:00

A short, lovely book. Eddie is a maintenance worker at a seaside theme park, and is killed in an accident. In heaven he meets five people, some strangers, some not, who changed his life, and who were changed by his. Eddie's life was sad, and his epiphanies are also sad.

Very worthwhile. I particularly approve of how short this book is! A similar novel is The Time Traveller's Wife, which is just wonderfully incredible, but this latter novel is better reserved for those with spare time on their hands (i.e., not me).



Wheels within wheels, bluffs within bluffs

2008-09-14T21:07:00.331-03:00

After enjoying the not-very-serious Call to Arms (Alan Dean Foster), I thought I might as check out the sequels, the last two novels in the trilogy known as The Damned. I was of course expecting the sequels to be worse, but ended up being pleasantly surprised. In fact, the sequels showed quite a bit more depth than their progenitor (note "more depth" is speaking in relative terms).In The False Mirror, the Weave alliance has finally begun to make progress against the implacable Amplitur and their telepathically-enslaved allies. Humans, the species equivalent of galactic psychopaths, have been fully integrated into the war effort, although not the political structure of the Weave. (Not surprisingly, civilized races, who can barely contemplate violence, are wary of granting full status to their bloodthirsty allies.) In order to turn the tide, the Amplitur breed genetically-modified Ashregan troops, equals to humans in stature, strength, and capacity for violence. The newly-unleashed forces devastate the unprepared Weave troops, but one of the new soldiers is captured and shown the extent of the Amplitur modification. Ranji is troubled by the revelation that the Ashregan race is not, in fact, a willing partner of the allegedly benevolent Amplitur. And even if he believes the Weave scientists, what should he do about it?The war nears its end in book three, The Spoils of War. The Wais are the most culturally sophisticated and least able to tolerate violence. It is no wonder that Wais scholars have large ignored studying the barbarous and inferior humans. However, Lalelelelang wonders what will happen when the humans no longer have an outlet for their aggression; she suspects they will turn against the remaining Weave civilizations. Lalelelang develops unique meditational and pharmacological interventions to enable her to study the humans, and ultimately she begins to study interspecies relationships even on the battlefield. In time she befriends a human soldier, one Colonel Straat-ien, but he begins to wonder whether Lalelelang must be eliminated in order to preserve the human race.I still think all the books in the series are quite pulpy, in a pejorative sense, but definitely there is much more sophistication in these latter two. For starters, they question seriously the nature of humanity (are we as a species inherently violent?), and true science-fiction should always be anthropologically reflexive in this way. (Alas, expect no answer from Mr. Foster.) The opening novel, A Call to Arms, largely avoided this kind of analysis in favour of merely developing the humorous conceit of humans as hell-world denizens.Also, interspecies relationships are less cluttered and therefore more sensible. A Call to Arms had far too many species working together on one ship, and the author, I think, struggled to coherently and plausibly deal with such a complicated premise. Mr. Foster took a few steps back in the latter novels and succeeded all the better for it.Finally, the readers begin to see the larger picture, as the time frame skips forward several hundred years with each novel. In The False Mirror, we begin to wonder whether the Ashregan soldiers were intended to be captured and de-programmed by the Weave; are they pawns in a far more subtle plot by the inexpressibly patient Amplitur? And in The Spoils of War we find several of the Weave species engaged in subtle conspiracies, even treason, for reasons unique to their temperaments. "Wheels within wheels" -- a cliche repeated by one of the conspirators, but very appropriate.I still cannot take these books too seriously; the writing is not masterful. But in fairness to Mr. Foster, writing fr[...]



Nighty-night

2008-09-07T23:13:00.445-03:00

This is a baby quilt.I briefly considered posting the photo with some babies on it. Billy Goat sets the example here by shamelessly pandering to the public's baby interest by mentioning little Baby Goat every so often. (Anyways, extra traffic is a good thing, so keep up the good work, B.G.!)But let's not get distracted by the babies.I have spent a lot of time staring at this quilt. It's really quite fascinating. (Mrs. Troll thinks I've lost my mind. Let's not discuss that point here.)One of the reasons I find it so interesting is the literary perspective. Literary, you say? Yes, science-fiction. And fantasy, too!The blanket depicts a certain view of the world. On the surface, it's calm and relaxing. "Make a wish," the blanket urges, "and all will be well."But look closer...The night sky is held together by stitching? The stars are held in place by mere thread?The stitching is unraveling?And oh, look here.The night sky -- the night sky -- is peeling off. Underneath is... what? Batting?In case I'm being unclear, this is not the actual quilt that is coming apart. The quilt itself is perfectly fine. The picture that is printed on the quilt depicts the unravelling of the universe.The quilt creeps me out. Everything is fake; nothing is real. Sure, you can wish upon a star, if it makes you feel better... but even the stars aren't real. The true world underneath... is nothing-ness.It's not quite Lovecraft-ian -- no, in that case, tentacles would be reaching up through the stitching (that would be an awesome quilt!).Perhaps it reminds me most of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea novels. The world is so vibrant and beautiful, but the afterlife is wholly empty. Souls go not to a heaven or hell, but to a dark, waterless land, where one stands for eternity in silent cities of stone. Shivers.That's what this quilt says. Life is beautiful now, but beyond lies Void.A lovely message to send to babies. (Isn't raising children fun?)[...]



Gremlins

2008-08-31T23:09:00.331-03:00

This seems to be turning into a mini-series of posts on movies... That's fine with me. I have some time for watching movies (brainless), and almost none for reading.

So I snagged a copy of Gremlins (alas, The Blob will have to wait).

Never saw it before -- I really missed out on pop culture as a child. So it came out in the 80s, of course -- in elementary school, that was the decade of Swatches and Transformer lunchboxes. Actually, I think I may even have had a Gremlins lunchbox, but my memory is a bit foggy on this point.

I love catching up on these missed pieces of collective culture, so I was ready to enjoy even a bad movie.

Oh boy, was it bad. (At least the special effects were still bearable, even after a few decades. Impressive!)

Let me just share a few random thoughts... if it jogs your recollection, please share in the comments.

Summary: boy meets cute but mysterious critter, keeps critter in bedroom. Accidental exposure to water leads to more sinister generation. Sinister generation spawns horde of demon-kind, lay waste to town. Viewers don't care; someone saves the day.

Brain-exploding logic: if water makes the Gremlins reproduce, and each generation is more sinister... what generation made the cute-and-nice creature? Is there some other method of reproduction? How come jumping in a pool bypasses the apparently-normal chrysalis stage? If water is so bad, why the heck would anyone keep these things as pets in the first place? (Like, if they ever escaped, the planet is toast.) What kind of water is OK? Isn't there water in all food? Humidity in the air? Why do the Gremlins like Snow White? And how can they watch the movie if they destroy the projector?

Ethnic moments: hello, Orientalism (thank you, Mrs. Troll, for pointing this out). What, Spielberg makes movies with inappropriate ethnic stereotypes? Couldn't be.

Most fun scene: Mom find several of the Gremlins in her kitchen; goes beserk and chops, mashes, blends, and nukes interlopers. Awesomely gory! Go, Mom!

Pointless moral: "you might just have gremlins in your misbehaving equipment..." Uh, yeah, nowhere in the movie did anyone try to make this point. The Gremlins did not act in subtle ways. They destroyed things. Generally in large, unmistakable hordes. If your oven is a little flaky, it's not a friggin' Gremlin unless some scaly, be-teethed horror jumps out and aims for the jugular.

Movie I haven't seen but that totally has to be better: Critters.



Geek is Mainstream

2008-09-04T12:54:23.098-03:00

I've been thinking a lot about geeks and geekiness lately. The term "geek" is sometimes used as a pejorative, sometimes as a badge of pride. Different people have different definitions. Is a geek better than a nerd? And how are the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres affected by the "geek" label, a label that seems to gravitate to them and the people who enjoy them?The Guardian's Book Blog was kind enough to link to our Sci-Fi and Religion series a few months back. Sam Jordison is the writer who linked us, and it was one of his posts that got me thinking about geekiness.Sam's post is titled My night in the new world of SF, but it was one of the comments that really made me think. I found this comment by TerryStern to be particularly interesting:I took the link back to your original post about SF and it would seem that you have been on an interesting journey. I think the real question is raised in both this post and the original. Why does SF present itself in such a geeky way?The Dr Who books, the Star wars/trek books and so forth in mainstream bookstores is one thing, but why are they letting one of their main awards be tarred with the Star Wars brush as you so outlined? It will only cause ridicule, parody and a reinforcement of stereotypes in the literary community.If the SF publishers want 'others' to see the genius of SF authors like Delaney, Dick and M John Harrison, they need to start taking themselves a bit more seriously and distancing themselves from the trekkie/geeky personas which have so successfully become embedded in the common psyche.This sort of talk gets my hackles up. For all my high ideas about Sci-Fi and Fantasy, I realize that for some people there's a stigma attached. The funny thing is that it's visited most visibly on the most mainstream of Sci-Fi, Star Wars and Star Trek. However, the idea that associating with people who like to dress up in costume somehow degrades Sci-Fi, and that the publishers need to "take themselves a bit more seriously" is nonsense. Is Sci-Fi, and more importantly good Sci-Fi, having trouble in the current state of popular culture? And how is this "geekiness" thing affecting the genre?The answer to these questions is pretty simple in my mind: Geek is mainstream, and therefore benefiting Sci-Fi. Look at the percentage of movies and television shows arriving each season that have Sci-Fi themes (or even comic-book themes, which fits into this conversation as well). How many of them are wildly successful? How many of them are great, or have some seriously great moments to them? I could name off a bunch of my favorite examples, but I think you get my point.The big counterexample to this is the continuing categorization of Sci-Fi and Fantasy as separate from "serious" literature. If it's "serious," like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, then it's no longer considered Sci-Fi. This idea is not new, and while searching around on this subject, I chanced upon Ursula K. Leguin's riff on this supposed separation between genre fiction and "serious" fiction. It's a pretty annoying distinction for those of us who like "genre" fiction such as Sci-Fi and Fantasy. However, I think we are seeing this difference fade away over time as people continue to talk about it. The presence of the internet is also changing this view as well, allowing more "fringe" types of Sci-Fi and Fantasy to get readership.So, is this increasing popularity of "geeky" material a good thing? Unequivocally, yes. Sure, this popularity also brings more crap, which can make identifying worthwhile media harder. Also, for some of us, this growth takes away that[...]



The Thing

2008-08-24T12:01:00.606-03:00

Saw a cool movie recently while babysitting.

The Thing: shipwrecked, shape-shifting, blood-thirsty aliens rampaging through an isolated Antarctic science station in the middle of winter. And a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone.

Hells, yeah!

I'm fairly sure I've read the story it's based on ("Who Goes There"), but I didn't know that until I watched the movie. It was one of those cultural icons I missed growing up. Sort of like Star Wars, although I've since managed to catch up on that score. (Next up: The Blob!)

Is anyone here not familiar with Ennio Morricone? He wrote the score for, oh, a zillion westerns, including all the Sergio Leone movies you've heard of. Remember The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly? The Mission? The Untouchables? Red Sonja? (Possibly my favourite theme song; actually, I haven't seen the movie. It's bound to be good, right? *snicker*)

So, in addition to enjoying the ass-kicking soundtrack, I also learned a few things:

1) Aliens are invariably slimy and love to bellow in victory. rrrar-RAWRRGH! (Serious, aliens are never cute by mammalian standards.)

2) Scientists at remote Antarctic research stations are invariably supplied with thermite, dynamite, grenades, assorted blasting charges, remote detonators, pistols, and not one -- but two -- kerosene-fueled flamethrowers.

I *love* being a scientist.



Recommended: The Blue Sword (Robin McKinley)

2008-08-17T23:07:00.768-03:00

Angharad -- Harry -- is sent to an outpust on the Darian continent, a young woman who never really fit back in the Homeland, but who is lost among her new family and friends.

Harry is filled with the loneliness of youth. Is it surprising, then, that when she is kidnapped by the impetuous native king, Corlath, Harry is not really upset? In time she learns the customs of the Damarians, their language, learns to ride their horses, and even wields her sword in their defence.

A troll-king, Thurra, has raised an army of nightmares to conquer the native country of Damar. Corlath must rely on Harry to bridge the mistrust between the Damarians and the hapless Homelanders to defend both countries.

The feel of this story is wonderful. The Homeland, the outpost on the Darian continent... surely this is reminiscent of colonial India? But then the Victorian flavour is mixed with the nomadism of the Damarians, and here we surely feel an Arabic influence. Kipling meets Lawrence of Arabia, perhaps (to inappropriately mix fiction with history).

Better than even the feel of the story is the love for the desert. Harsh, stark, but beautiful -- even a kind of emptiness can be welcoming. The descriptions are wonderfully genuine; Damar is a land that must be real, and we too could ride in the desert with Corlath and the other heroes of Damar.

(A little nit-picking. I just saw on Amazon.com that the current book cover looks like a cross between Black Beauty and some torrid romance novel. Oh, puh-lease!)



The Dragon Queen (Alice Borchardt)

2008-08-10T17:16:02.132-03:00

This was one of my more-or-less random picks at the used book store. Usually they end up being bad (for example, In the Wrong Hands by Edward Gibson. Written by a real! astronaut! Better to have books written by real authors...), but it's those once-in-a-whiles that make it all worth it.

The Dragon Queen is a Guinevere story, hardly unique at that. Still, the thousand-year-old fairy tales are often the ones that are best. I'd compare it with The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley) -- except I haven't read it. (I also remember liking The Crystal Cave [Mary Stewart] quite a lot, but it's been many, many years. Anyways, that series focuses largely on Merlin, so it's not quite relevant here.)

The novel is lovely. The writing is lush and delightful. The characters are fresh and unique, yet still familiar.

And yet... some complaints.

First, this novel is the first in a series. I'm really fed up with fantasy series -- doesn't brevity sell anymore?

Second, the historical context is... confusing. I can't possibly keep track of all the various tribes and nobles and such. They're all in the background, so I didn't have to... but still.

Third, the plot is limited. We know Guinevere is going to grow up. We know she's going to marry Arthur. And everyone in the book knows it, too. So the plot follows the gift-gathering trope: the major obstacles result in the main characters gaining some bit of knowledge, or magical item, or adding a little piece to their personality.

(It's almost a bit like those video games: you have to run around, solve the puzzles, defeat the henchmen, fight the boss, and then you get the Magical Boots of Wonderment. Or the Pearlescent Orb of Perceptive Observation. And eventually, when you've got all the little toys, you win.)

Now, this gift-gathering trope, as I'm calling it, is certainly a very important part of the fantasy canon. I can't criticize that, per se, but there are really few surprises left in the plot when you know exactly what the characters will grow up to be.

Having offered these criticisms, I must soften them somewhat. The situations, the traps and monsters, the little jaunts to hell and other worlds, the magical gifts, they are so wonderfully creative, that I was in awe. Ms. Borchardt has done a fantastic job.

And my final verdict? I enjoyed reading it... but I feel no special pull to read the sequels.



Latest Readings, Life, and Other News

2008-08-09T21:38:19.708-03:00

Since my move to California, life has started to settle down. I'm co-renting a house with some friends, which is working out spectacularly. Baby Gruff loves having a yard to explore and an outside filled with new and exciting things. He walks to the door and says, "Woof woof" (I want to go see Cuchiq, the little dog next door), or makes the baby sign for "tree" or "outside" to indicate to me his intentions. Outside, he points at Cuchiq and again says, "Woof woof," and as we walk by the car he say, "vvvrrrrrrrrooo." Obliging, I let him sit on my lap in the front seat and he pretends to drive, complete with baby driving noises ("vvvrrrrrooo"), interrupted by "push push" when he sees all the buttons he wants to push. When he gets bored of the unresponsive car, we stroll into the back yard and pick up a bunch of little rocks, and I learn just how many times someone can say, "ball" in the span of ten minutes. A peach - ball. A ball - ball (duh). A round light fixture - ball, etc. Until you've walked around a grocery store with a baby who's favorite word is "ball," you don't know just how many balls surround you in this life (and there are many).The weather here is great, almost always sunny, with temperatures ranging in the high 70's or low 80's on most days. I haven't seen a rain shower in the two months I've been here, which is a little sad because I enjoy the occasional rainy day. However, mornings are often pleasantly foggy and lightly overcast, which almost makes up for it. The evenings are cool, which is awesome for running. Baby Gruff enjoys the runs in his jogging stroller, and one neighbor enjoyed joking with me about how the baby will soon be holding a stopwatch and telling me to, "Pick up the pace, Dad!"A Deepness in the SkyI take the train to work, and so I have a nice block of reading time every day. This is something I would recommend to anyone who likes to read and has a day job. Lately, I've been reading A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge. So far, it's a good read filled with lots of fun ideas. This shouldn't be too surprising, considering it's a Hugo award winner for best novel. It's a space opera involving two advanced human civilizations competing to exploit a world just entering the technological age. The twist is that the world is populated by intelligent spiders, and has a sun that stays lit only 30 years at a time, then "turns off" for 200 years. The ramifications of this strange setup are detailed nicely, and the spiders are one of the most lovable and well-described characters in the book. Yes, this caught me by surprise, too: spiders are lovable.My First Review Copy - The Court of the AirI received my first free review copy of a book a couple of days ago. Stephen Hunt sent me his novel, The Court of the Air. It's steampunk, which has me excited already. Strangely, I have read almost no steampunk works, even though I really like any kind of fusion between Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Historical Fiction. My experience of the genre basically boils down to Final Fantasy VII, Thief II, the Eberron D&D setting, and a few brief glances at Girl Genius.Actually, I'm so excited about getting this book, that The Court of the Air has moved to the top of my To-Be-Read pile. I'll be sure to post a review after I read it.Other NewsIn other news, a computer finally beat a master-level Go player, albeit with a huge handicap. It was an 800-core supercomputer. Wow. As an avid Go player (although I haven't played much recently)[...]



The Damned

2008-08-03T19:05:55.609-03:00

I recently snagged a copy of A Call to Arms (Alan Dean Foster) from the local library (with thanks to Drek). The basic idea in the novel is neat: The Weave is a loose confederation of vertebrate alien races engaged in permanent war against the Amplitur (telepathic slug-like slavers). So far the Weave is holding its own, but it's not easy conducting a war when evolution has suppressed the ability to kill others (only a few species in the Weave are even capable of actual fighting, though the rest do what they can to support the war effort*).What the Weave would really like is to be allied with aliens who are actually good at killing. So off they go in search of such allies. They manage to locate what is frankly a hell-world: a world wracked with active geology, brutal weather, and vicious competition for any ecological niches. The dominant sentient species on this world is strong and violent, just the sort of ass-kicking uber-soldier the Weave needs (not to mention the Amplitur).By this point you won't be surprised when I reveal that the particular hell-world in question is more commonly known as Earth. Nor will you will be surprised that some might regret hiring the galaxy's psychopaths as mercenaries...It's a very cute conceit. Obviously similar examples have been done before (Dune, for instance, has a similar hell-world), but I can't recall any other author arguing that Earth is such a horrible place.I can't wholeheartedly recommend this novel -- many of the interesting ideas aren't terribly well developed -- but it's such a neat idea that I wanted to share it with you. The series continues with The False Mirror and The Spoils of War (which I have also read and may share with you in a future post).It's difficult to pique your interest without offering spoilers. I was particularly amused by the scenes in A Call to Arms when the scouting party of the Weave manages to locate the human world. What follows can only be described as SPOILERS, so feel free to break off here. (Sorry, Billy Goat.) First, when the Weave locates Earth, they send down an unmanned probe. After some time, they lose contact with it. What happened? It's all very puzzling -- a few individuals suggest the probe may even have been shot down. But that's impossible -- no one would shoot before investigating. Obviously the best thing is to send another probe. Several hours later, they lose contact with that probe. Huh? I love the confusion shown by the Weave soldiers (soldiers!) who simply cannot conceive of an immediate, violent response.Not long after, the aliens resolve to send a scouting party to interrogate a human. They locate a yacht with one inhabitant, a burnt-out musician bumming around the Caribbean. One of the more bad-ass soldiers sneaks up behind the human and grabs him by the shoulder. The human, startled, lashes out and breaks the soldier's arm. Modest chaos ensues (keep in mind that no one would have expected an immediate violent response). Eventually things calm down - everyone is impressed, including the poor fellow whose arm has been broken. They try to communicate, but -- oh, crap! he's running, how the hell can he move that fast -- the human jumps ship. Priceless. Highly trained soldiers engaged in a thousand-year war, shown up by one of the more pathetic examples of humanity.As I said, it's cute. Great? No. Entertaining? Sure.* I suppose that means buying war bonds**?** Asterisks used in honour of Drek.[...]



Reviewer Blogs Vs. Amazon.com Reviewers

2008-07-31T22:19:36.686-03:00

Avidbookreader.com has a post about Amazon's new Vine early reviewer program. You sign up and you get early releases of books to review! For free! It sounds like a neat idea, but it turns out to have lots of problems caused by the basic human urge to hoard free stuff. One of the big problems was that people would write a review before receiving their book so they could quickly request another one.On one hand, I'm disappointed that Amazon's reviews are getting padded with more junk. I occasionally read the reviews for a book that I'm interested in. However, bad book reviews are not a new thing. At Amazon I've learned to cultivate a caution, so that I can quickly recognize and skip over reviews that I think will annoy me or ruin the book. There are also fake, glowing reviews written by publicists, which can sometimes be harder to detect, and seem to growing in frequency.However, on the other hand, a part of me is happy to see the further ghettoization of Amazon's book reviews. They make book review blogs, including this blog, more valuable to you, our readers. This assumes that you continue to believe that we have not been bought off. This shouldn't be too hard if you look at our traffic, our posting frequency, and the many old old books we've recommended. If we'd sold out, we'd be making much more money than the five dollars a year we're currently netting from Google ads (woo, I'll be 50 when we get our first $100 check!), we'd quit our day jobs, and we'd be living our own fantasies of literature-reviewing hedonism.Early on, Amazon.com actually made me wonder why I was bothering to blog about books. Why not just write up my recommendations over there? Did I seriously need my own blog, to set myself apart, to stroke my own ego, that much? Well, you know the answer to that!However, there's more to it. When Mister Troll asked me to create this blog with him, I wanted to provide something more than just a clump of reviews. I think Gabe at Penny Arcade said it best when he wrote, albeit about video games instead of books:The first thing you do is get rid if the numbers or percentages or stars or monkeys or whatever the fuck it is your site uses to review games. Then you get together a group of five or six guys and you give me some background on each of them. Tell me what kind of games this cat likes to play. Did he like Halo? Did he enjoy REZ? I need to know if my tastes match up at all with this guy. Then you have him write an article about a game he just played. No bullshit though, I just want to know if you had a good time. What did you like, what didn't you like? In the end I want you to tell me if it's something you think I should pick up. Once this has been going on for a while people will be able to identify with certain reviewers. If after six or seven games Steve and I seem to agree on pretty much everything I'll know that I can trust Steve's choices in the future. You need to make them people though, not just names at the end of a review.I think the big value of a book blog is that the reader gets to know the blog author's tastes, and how those tastes match up with his. That's the bonus we provide with our recommendations and reviews. If I had not thought we could provide something that Amazon.com can't, I would not be doing this.Of course, there's plenty of other content to set us apart, too, like our half-baked rants, controversial pronouncements, goofy lists, and silly stories.[...]



Ethics and A.I. (via Uncertain Principles)

2008-07-31T14:52:26.876-03:00

Over at Uncertain Principles, a request for sci-fi literature that deals with ethics and A.I.

Quite a number of stories mentioned in the comments.