Wednesday, March 31, 2010


On April 1, one year ago today, I looked out the window of my hotel room and saw this.
My oh my.


The Leaf, Trembling

I put aside my Nebula reading for some stories by W. Somerset Maugham, his collection The Trembling of a Leaf. These are stories set in Samoa or Honolulu or on the long passage somewhere between, and include "Rain," the story that introduced the world to Miss Sadie Thompson, the hooker with a heart of sulfuric acid played variously on the screen by Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford, and Rita Hayworth.

I like Maugham. He was a physician, a spy, a sophisticate, and one of nature's expatriates. The Razor's Edge is the only novel I know of that convincingly portrays metaphysics. Ashenden is the first of a long line of worldly espionage agents. (James Bond is his natural son.) Cakes and Ale is more fun than you'd ever expect in a fictionalized biography of Thomas Hardy.

Maugham traveled the world in search of story material (or for reasons of espionage) and ended up documenting the lifestyles of imperial expatriates, white men who lived with, and sometimes ruled over, the subject races of the empire. He did not glamorize these people at all, and apparently his stories left a lot of angry people in their wake, people who felt Maugham had told their stories in a degrading and tawdry manner.

Maugham doesn't glamorize the natives, either--- there are no noble savages in his work. He saves most of his venom, however, for the "half-breeds," of whose manners, and maybe existence, he disapproves.

Somewhere in the course of reading Trembling of a Leaf, I realized that these stories were a type that I'd never encountered before. No one would write a story like this today, and though I'm hardly an expert on 19th Century short fiction, I'm not sure they were a lot of stories like these in the past, either.

The stories are, mostly, condensed novels. They contain a novel's worth of story in a novelet's amount of words. Maugham accomplishes this feat by having one of the characters in the story--- often a character who seems to be Maugham himself--- simply narrate the story, as if he were telling us the plot of a novel without breaking it into scenes or giving us many details. Assuming that "show, don't tell" is an actual rule--- which it isn't--- Maugham violates it everywhere you look. Each of the stories then ends with a twist, and is then abruptly over. Maugham isn't interested in working up his conclusions into epiphanies--- when he's done, he's done, and you either get it or you don't.

("Rain," the collection's most famous story, is narrated more conventionally.)

The "tell, don't show" approach didn't quite work for me. I felt cheated out of what would probably have been a series of very good novels.

But I'm curious concerning how the original audience would have responded to these stories. Were they used to this sort of narrative? If they were, I imagine it was encountered in the stories of lesser talents whose work has not survived.

(Apropos film adaptations of Maugham works: the Tyrone Power version of Razor's Edge is terrific, and features the ever-suave Herbert Marshall as Maugham [without the stammer]. I never saw the Bill Murray version. Hitchcock's The Secret Agent is a nifty adaptation of Ashenden, never to be confused with Sabotage, his adaptation of The Secret Agent. I've been unable to deal with the bathos of Of Human Bondage in either the film or novel versions.)

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010


It's World War II on Facebook.

[via Janice]

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Back Taxes

So . . . as I was discussing my 2009 taxes with the Accountant, the Accountant asked: "What about property taxes for 2009?"

Hmm. Interesting. I didn't remember paying property taxes for 2009. Or for that matter receiving a bill.

So I've been on the phone with the County Clerk and the County Assessor and the County Treasurer. And it turns out that my purchase of the property 16 years ago was never recorded, and that (up to today, anyway) it was listed as belonging to Mr and Mrs Ray Hodges.

Any correspondence, including bills from the Treasurer, went to the PO Box that the Hodges family had 16 years ago. No property tax bill ever reached me.

I owe back taxes.

It's not as bad as it could be. We didn't pay off the mortgage until 2008, and up till then the lender paid the taxes. So I only owe for 2009, and maybe 2008 and 2010.

Fortunately we live in a rural area, where property taxes are low.



Monday, March 29, 2010

Thought for the Day

If you don't give your reader the ending you promised, then the ending you actually write better be three times better than the ending the audience expects.


Gravity-Free Assembly

Courtesy of USA Today, an animation showing the decade-long assembly of the International Space Station.

[via Gardner]


Sunday, March 28, 2010


From Bruce Schneier, we find that all that anonymous networking data isn't so anonymous after all . . .

Computer scientists Arvind Narayanan and Dr Vitaly Shmatikov, from the University of Texas at Austin, developed the algorithm which turned the anonymous data back into names and addresses.

The data sets are usually stripped of personally identifiable information, such as names, before it is sold to marketing companies or researchers keen to plumb it for useful information.

Before now, it was thought sufficient to remove this data to make sure that the true identities of subjects could not be reconstructed.

The algorithm developed by the pair looks at relationships between all the members of a social network -- not just the immediate friends that members of these sites connect to.

Social graphs from Twitter, Flickr and Live Journal were used in the research.

The pair found that one third of those who are on both Flickr and Twitter can be identified from the completely anonymous Twitter graph. This is despite the fact that the overlap of members between the two services is thought to be about 15%.

The researchers suggest that as social network sites become more heavily used, then people will find it increasingly difficult to maintain a veil of anonymity.

If it's privacy you're after, just stay off the freakin' Internet.

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Unusual Apology

Betraying a refreshingly unusual attitude, the screenwriter who wrote Battlefield Earth apologizes for his work.

It wasn't as I intended -- promise. No one sets out to make a train wreck. Actually, comparing it to a train wreck isn't really fair to train wrecks, because people actually want to watch those.

It started, as so many of my choices do, with my Willy Wonker.

It was 1994, and I had read an article in Premiere magazine saying that the Celebrity Center, the Scientology epicenter in Los Angeles, was a great place to meet women . . .

"Honest, judge, I was just horny! And the next thing you know, I'd done something infamous!"

Yeah, dude. Blame it on your pecker.

But if you read the article to the finish, you can't help but notice that he didn't even get laid.

[via Janice]


Friday, March 26, 2010

Bouncy Castle

There's a huge wind storm going on right now. I was driving home this afternoon and saw a large object bounding down the road ahead of me. Turns out it was the roof to someone's barn or garage.

Get the Plague!

Don't say I never did anything for you!
My new Night Shade collection, The Green Leopard Plague and Other Stories, is now available for pre-order at half price!

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Why I Am Feeling Smug Beyond All Reason

NASA astronaut Colonel Mike Fincke, with whom I had a memorable conversation back in 2008, has invited me to witness his next shuttle launch, STS-134.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Mamet's Memo

A memo written by David Mamet has recently surfaced, one that he wrote to the writers of his TV show The Unit. Though the memo is directed specifically to television writers, it nevertheless contains advice which all writers of fiction should take to heart.





2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT? (I suspect a typo has intruded here.)









And so on . . .

[via Oz]

Expiration Date

Five years ago today, I was undergoing surgery for a burst appendix and a necrotic gall bladder.

I've exceeded my expiration date by five years!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Glory Fadeth Not

My story "Abrizonde," from the Songs From the Dying Earth collection edited by Gardner Dozois and George RR Martin, is on the long list for a British Fantasy Award.

As are two more stories from the collection, and the collection itself.

Mind you, this is a long list, and it will grow shorter in time.

Still, more glory for meeeeeeeeee!

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Tech . . . Tech . . . Tech

(Yeah, that title dates me, doesn't it? Nothing says senile like referencing an obscure Jim Brown movie that has nothing to do with the ostensible topic. Yet here we go, maundering on . . . )

I spent part of last week at the World's Best Technology expo in Arlington, TX. Each morning I woke up to the sound of screaming . . . from the roller coaster at the amusement park across the street. I never got out of the hotel/convention center, though the roller coaster looked pretty inviting.

Inside the convention center were lots of little booths with hopeful inventors and/or entrepreneurs, pitching their products to all who came by in hopes of finding a Venture Capital Angel, or at least someone from the DOD with a mandate to turn all inventions into new ways of whacking Jihadis.

One thing I learned is that most entrepreneurs should hire pitchmen to do their actual pitches. When you sit down to do your pitch, and it begins with, "The first thing you need to know is Ohm's Law," then you really need to hire someone else to do your talking for you.

I didn't get to scope out everything, but I saw some impressive technologies sitting on their haunches ready to spring. I was particularly impressed by the folks who were mobilizing their strategies around technology that simply wasn't there a few years ago.

hypios, Inc. is a company operating out of Paris (presumably not the one in Texas) that uses social media to crowdsource problem-solving. Say a company has a problem, and is willing to pay for a solution. They post a reward through hypios, which sends out the problem through its social network of problem solvers. The problem can be attacked individually or through a team or through general brainstorming, and if it's solved, the money is divided between the solvers, with hypios taking a 20% cut.

I told them I'd literally written the book on this topic in This Is Not a Game, but they claimed ignorance of this revolutionary tome.

(Unfortunately the problem has to be one with a deadline and a well-defined solution, so it's no fair asking them "Is there a God?" or "How do we achieve world peace?")

Another technology discussed in TINAG is embodied in the Pixie Engine, from human network labs. Pixie allows realtime mapping of people and objects during disasters by chaining together cellphone signals, independently of whether there's a cell tower within range. So if, say, you have an earthquake, and someone with a Pixie is buried under rubble, the Pixie will you where this person is, and how far down to dig.

Pixie can also be used as a social networking tool, as if we don't have far too many of those already.

whichbox is an all-in-one media platform, "an online content publishing platform for publishers and media companies. Delivered as a Software as a Service (SaaS), whichbox™ provides a revolutionary relevancy driven and content focused, all-media, online publishing platform and service. whichbox™ was built from the ground up to be an affordable, turnkey all-in-one platform for online publishers and media companies to create, publish and monetize all-media web content using our “organic storytelling™” model . . . The whichbox™ Platform brings together proprietary all-media content creation tools (combining video, audio, text, images, how-to's etc. into ONE piece of content). The “one-to-many” CMS can publish content to one or many websites with a mouse-click. Powerful next-generation social networking features empower end users with the same content publishing tools as publishers . . . From a central content management “dashboard,” WhichBox Media’s new generation Content Management System (CMS) manages a single or multiple domains from a single platform."

(Hope™ you™ got™ all™ that™, folks™.)

pronucleotein (and can I just state that I'm getting really bored by this fashion of companies eschewing capital letters) has developed a handheld box that detects contamination in food. Just point and click, and you know whether or not your food source is contaminated with salmonella. Or Camphylobacter. Or nerve gas. (Can somebody from the DOD, or maybe my local school cafeteria, just give them money already?)

Theravasc (at last a company with a capital! [if not capital]) is a uniquely backward-looking technology company. They comb through the many drugs that are no longer in use--- and are no longer under patent--- and "repurpose" them for new applications. Since the FDA has already got the safety studies on file, the new/old drugs can be rolled out in jig time. How cool is this?

The single most impressive technology was one that I can't find in my notes--- apparently I lost their literature, or maybe they were not savvy enough to bring any literature--- was embodied the gent who had his display up only during Tuesday's cocktail party, and who is not therefore on WBT's official schedule, which means I can't look him up.

He had developed a new means for ion/deuterium fission, which would--- if it works--- solve the energy crisis practically overnight. (Insert as many exclamation points here as you like.)

The collision of ions and deuterium ions has been tried before, but the beams weren't coherent enough, and an insufficient amount of energy was produced. Our guy claims to have hacked the beam problem.

The twin accelerator rings, one for the ions and the other for the deuterium ions, would be modular, so that you could just stack them on top of each other to produce a bigger energy plant. And if one ring needed servicing, you could just move it out of the stack and slap another one in.

Practically limitless fusion energy without nuclear waste, plutonium, or uranium. Nifty. Necessary. Possibly too good to be true.

We had a physicist with us, so we shoved Yoji at the guy, and Yoji came back saying, "I hope he's right." At least there wasn't anything obviously wrong with the scheme.

Someone from the DOE needs to look him up, whoever he is, and write a check. (Who was that masked nuclear physicist?)

There were dozens of other nifty projects, not all of which I got a chance to see myself. Some handed out flashlights, key rings, and chocolate.

And one giveaway was a world-changing technology, at least for me. US Department of Defense caffeinated chewing gum, complete with camouflage wrapper. Can I just say that this is an idea whose time has come?


The Pleasing Day

Today had a refreshing sense of normality to it, which so many of them don't nowadays. I rose, exercised, showered, ate lunch, went shopping. Then I spent several hours spraying weed killer about the property--- I've been overrun with something called "London rocket," which is a kind of mustardlike plant with a yellow flower, not native to the area but spreading like, well, weeds.

After that I cooked up a week's worth of badaami murgh--- which is a chicken dish featuring a kind of tomato-ginger-onion-garlic sauce that would be like red spaghetti sauce, if red spaghetti sauce were invented by someone from Jaipur. (I must try it on pasta.)

Having spent the whole day on my feet, I then put my feet up in the hot tub for a while, and now I'm refreshed and nourished and ready for a night's hard writing.

A nearly perfect day, if one in a minor key. Exercise, the outdoors, a good meal, a good bathe, and readiness for the day's usual combat with the English language. What more could a person want? (Other than sex, I suppose.)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Taos Toolbox 2010

To my astonishment, there are still places available at Taos Toolbox, a master class for writers of science fiction and fantasy, June 6-19, 2010.

Teaching will be Nancy Kress, Carrie Vaughn, and my ownself.
My surprise, however, is your opportunity! Apply at once, so as not to miss out!

WBT 2010

I'm off to World's Best Technology Showcase 2010, in lovely Arlington, TX.

My panel is 5pm on Wednesday, for anyone interested in hearing my pearls of wisdom.


Reviews Too Brief: In the Loop

Okay, so I saw In the Loop and I'd like to spend a lot of words explaining how good it was, but I can't because I'm leaving town and haven't yet done my laundry.

It's a British political satire about the spin-up to a familiar-sounding war, and it plays like a combination of Dr. Strangelove, the Office, and the output of some highly ingenious scatology-creation software. And because I don't have any time, I'm just going to cut-and-paste some dialog from the film, and you can decide on your own whether this is your cup of tea or not.

Jamie: Well, if it isn't Humpty Numpty.

Simon: What is this? Surround bollocking?

Jamie: Hey, with due respect, I hadn't finished. If it isn't Humpty Numpty sitting on top of a collapsing wall like some clueless egg cunt. Now, I'm finished.

Simon: Hi, Jamie, this is Toby.

Toby: Oh, um... Toby Rice, I'm Simon's aide.

Jamie Hi, Toby, Toby. Very pleased to meet you. Please sit down. Now, right, that's enough of all the fucking Oxbridge pleasantries.

Toby: What's Oxbridge about saying hello?

Jamie: Shut it, Love Actually! Do you want me to hole punch your face?

Malcolm: Right, I'm off to deal with the fate of the planet. Be gentle with them.

Jamie: Oh, you know me, Malc. Kid gloves... but made from real kids. Right, Butch and Gaydance, this wall story is playing badly. There's a cartoon of you in here as a walrus.

Simon: A walrus? I'm not fat, I don't even have a moustache. Fuck, they've given me tusks.

Jamie: Wal-rus. You get it? Wal-rus, wal-rus.

Toby: We called some builders. They didn't turn up when they said they would.

Jamie: What did you expect? They're builders! Have you ever seen a film where the hero is a builder? No, no, because they never fucking turn up in the nick of time. Bat-builder? Spider-builder? Huh? That's why you never see a superhero with a hod!


Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Big Boys

So who are the big boys in our universe? Who can push our weeny little world around and give it a swirly? For the answer, check out the video.

[via Gardner]


Back To the Fifties!

I remember when an acquaintance of mine was working as a substitute teacher, and was trying to find something for her grade school class to do. So she--- the product of a typical American nuclear family--- decided that they were going to play "house."

She figured that they would play members of a nuclear family, but that's not quite how they saw their roles.

A couple of the kids volunteered to be Mommy and Daddy.

Then another kid said: "I'll be Mommy's Lawyer!"

And another said, "I'll be Daddy's Girlfriend!"

"I'll be Mommy's Creepy Older Brother, Bob!"

"And I'll be Little Timmy, who's forgotten to take his Ritalin! AAAAAAUUUGH!"

Clearly childhood had changed since she had been her charges' age. And it's about to change again.
Because now the little ones can play with Barbie dolls inspired by Mad Men, the TV series about manipulative, soulless advertising executives exploiting the weak, cheating on their wives, living in a delusional world of their own making, and stabbing each other in the back with an amoral ruthlessness that would do credit to Cesare Borgia.
[You can viddie my own view of Mad Men here. For some reason Blogger insists that you get another review as well--- but as Dick Draper might say, "Just think of it as a two-for-the-price-of-one deal."]
“ ‘Mad Men’ represents so beautifully the universe that created Barbie,” said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, because the series is about the selling of the American consumer society.

The personification of Betty Draper as Barbie is particularly resonant, Mr. Thompson said, because she represents “the wife who lives in her dream house whose soul is eaten away.”
Imagine the joy your children will have re-creating the morally reprehensible universe of the series!
"Here's Dick Draper, coming home from work!"
"Ugh!" says his wife Betty. "You smell like the floozy you've been screwing! I'm going to drop the martini pitcher as a protest against the hollow wretchedness that is my life!"
"Allow me to further undermine your self-esteem by pointing out the waxy yellow buildup on our kitchen floors."
"Aagh! I'm going to develop a psychosomatic illness so that you can spend thousands of dollars on my useless shrink!"
"Wouldn't you rather have a new refrigerator? My girlfriend owns a department store, and she'd give me a great deal!"
It goes without saying that the dolls are fully accessorized.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

. . . Than A Doornail

Why satire is dead, Example #3058.

[via Jay]

When Geekdoms Collide

Okay, maybe this is way the hell too meta, but I always enjoy it when geekdoms come crashing together.

D&D alignments explained, with examples from Dr. Who.

Where Has the Time Gone?

You've all got something like 24 hours in which to nominate me for a Hugo Award!

Better get cracking!


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Here's the US cover for Deep State, my next.
No word yet on a publication date.


Health Plan

Republican plans for health care reform have finally been revealed!

Hoyer-Larson Bill: All 45 million uninsured Americans would be guaranteed medical care, all of it provided by Dr. Tom Janicak of Houston, TX

Griffith-Cantor Bill: Low-income families would be allowed to huddle outside hospital windows in the cold and look at wealthier families receiving care.

[via Janice]


Media Miscellany

Brief notes concerning images recently made visible on my television.

Survivors. While I had a cold last week I watched several episodes of this British post-apocalypse series, seen here on BBC America. BBCA usually runs SF and/or fantasy on Saturday nights, and have so far managed to prove that the Brits can produce series as feeble and half-witted as anything seen on Syfy.

Survivors takes place in a Britain where a fast-acting plague has killed 99% of the population, leaving behind only (a) the extremely violent, and (b) stupid people. Among the survivors things get all Lord of the Flies very fast, because a country where 99% of the people have just died cannot possibly have enough resources to support the remaining one percent. (No doubt it occurred to the producers that a series in which the survivors quietly go about the business of learning how to sow crops and raise livestock would be, I dunno, really boring. So instead they get to fight over the last tin of bully beef at Tesco.)

Of the two categories of people mentioned above, our heroes are (b) the stupid. Our chief heroine, Abby, has not yet learned that it is not a wise policy to walk up to heavily armed maniacs and preach unto them the gospel of sharing resources and pulling together for the benefit of all. I'm glad a character in the series has a moral center, but I can't help but wish that more of her neurons were firing.

Maybe it's the American in me, but I couldn't help but notice that not a single one of our band of heroes reasons thus: "We keep running into bands of armed, unreasoning people who keep shooting at us. Perhaps, for our own preservation, we ought to break into a gun shop and equip ourselves with firearms."

I mean, if this were an American show, that would be the first thing people would do. In Britain, not even the convicted murderer is inclined to arm himself!

The Hangover. In general, I'm not a big fan of Guy Comedies. I feel I have enough trouble restraining my impulses toward anarchy and inebriation without having before me the dire example of, say, Revenge of the Nerds IV. Watching Man-Children Behave Badly produces in me feelings of sadness rather than mirth.

The Hangover is a film that transcends its genre, in part because the Man-Children pretty much get what's coming to them (tiger, chicken, missing tooth, drunken marriage to escort, abduction by strangely fey Chinese gangster, punch from Mike Tyson)--- and also because they don't get to be smug afterwards about their own cleverness.

Plus, it's really, really funny. And if you're like me, Structure Boy, you'll enjoy the unusual way the movie is put together, with a framing story that (a) frames well, and (b) works.

Also, if you're watching the DVD, be sure to watch the extra titled "The Madness of Ken Jeong." Because--- dude!--- that guy got his dramatic training on some other planet, in some whole other universe in which Robin Williams was Jesus.

Brideshead Revisited. This is the 2008 feature film, not the 1981 miniseries, which had fine production values but which ran about four or five hours too long, causing me to surrender first to slumber and then to indifference.

I may have mentioned elsewhere my admiration for the works of Evelyn Waugh. In person he was a vile, creepy little toad of a man who I would have been proud to punch in the nose, but on the page he is marvelous, and Brideshead is his best book. Brideshead was written in World War II--- in fact Waugh, who was an officer in S.O.E., managed to get official leave from leading a guerilla war in Yugoslavia in order to write the book. (The fact that everyone loathed him and wished to see the back of him probably helped.)

This adaptation, written by Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock, and directed by Julian Jarrold, does an admirable job of distilling a very subtle novel into a little over two hours of film time. The novel is as much about mood as it is about story, and the film captured the moods wonderfully.

The best thing is that the film trusts its audience. It assumes that anyone watching is intelligent and can figure things out on his or her own, and so it doesn't talk down to you and doesn't bang home the plot points with a sledgehammer. The screenplay clarifies a few things that the novel left ambiguous, and moderates the deranged Catholicism of some of the characters, probably thinking that anyone that crazy would lose the sympathy of the audience. (In Waugh, only the Catholics are real people, thus entitled to guilt, wretchedness, and misery; but if you're not a Catholic, you're not even a person, you're a forlorn shade forever wandering the twilit banks of the distant Styx.)

Everyone in the film is good, but Ben ("the next Olivier") Whishaw is just astounding as Lord Sebastian Flyte. I remember the 1981 version, and my female friends drooling over Anthony Andrews in the part. You may not drool over Whishaw, but you sure as hell will say, "Holy shit, that's one great actor!"

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Monday, March 08, 2010

O You Lucky Brits!

Oh to be in England now that This Is Not a Game is there!

Yes! The British paperback of TINAG is now available!


Friday, March 05, 2010

Sekrit Formula

Now that Alice in Wonderland has entered general release--- my modest opinion of the film is offered below--- perhaps it's time for this glimpse into the mind of the Master.

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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Famous For All the Wrong Reasons

Renowned atmospheric physicist Charles B. Moore passed away on Wednesday. Though his career was chock-a-block with scientific accomplishment, he is best known for something that didn't actually happen.

Let me explain.

Dr. Moore was a pioneer in the use of large polyethylene balloons, or aerostats. On June 4, 1947, one of Dr. Moore's Project Mogul aerostats crashed in a sheep pasture near the remote village of Corona, N.M. Some weeks after the crash, the wreckage was found by a ranch worker, then trucked some 75 miles over primitive roads to Roswell Army Air Field, then taken by a B-29 to Fort Worth AAF, where some of it is still in storage.

This wreckage is the basis for the story of the "Roswell UFO," which is neither an alien spacecraft, nor has anything to do with Roswell (which continues to have its UFO festival every year).

Corona, the village near the site of the actual crash, does not seem to commemorate the event in any way. But then, with a total population of 165 at the last census, the party wouldn't be very large.

This isn't to say that the wreckage wasn't a UFO, in the strict technical sense. It was, after all, Unidentified, at least until 1994, when Dr. Moore saw a photo of the debris in a newspaper article and exclaimed, "That's my balloon!"

All of which is by way of saying that you never know how you're going to remembered. Even if you're a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union and received New Mexico Tech's Distinguished Research Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, plus being a fellow in the Royal Meteorological Society, American Meteorological Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, you can still end up famous for something you'd forgotten about forty years earlier.

I'm just hoping that all my friends have forgotten about that little incident back in July of 1978.

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Count the Cliches!

It's the adventures of Brewster Rockit, Space Guy!

[via Janice]

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Pretty Pictures, Lots of Chases

I got a chance to see a sneak preview of Burton's Alice in Wonderland, and now I'm thinking about how franchises have got detached from the source of their inspiration.

It certainly happened with Sherlock Holmes. Robert Downey played a character who shared a name and an occupation with his progenitor, but little else. There were people with names like Irene and Moriarity in the film, but they could have been named Sadie and Murgatroyd for all it mattered to the story.

And now Alice. Which is a Disney franchise, re-envisioned by Tim Burton, that now has less to do with Lewis Carroll's creation than ever.

I'm very happy that I didn't have to pay ten bucks for it.

The film is not the original story, but a sequel. (Forgive me for thinking that it really ought to be called Alice II.) Somewhere in the long process of making this film, someone should have noted that sequels are never as good as the originals.

Among the joys of Carroll's work are the fine logic visible behind all the nonsense, the joy in wordplay, the satire, the parodies, the puns, and the songs. Obviously not all of this would make sense to a modern audience, but Burton chose to chuck all of it and replace it with a Grade C fantasy plot, complete with plot coupons.

Alice is the Chosen One who must get ahold of the Orb of the Bandersnatch in order to find the Key of Mystery that unlocks the Chest of Hiding in order to get the Blade of Vorpal that is the Only Weapon that can behead the Jabberwock and restore the Rightful Queen of Wonderland.

I'm not joking. Not joking at all. That's literally what happens in the movie.

Add a bunch of characters chosen randomly from the two Alice books, and a villainous one-eyed assassin brought in from some other movie, and there you go.

There are some lovely bits. The Cheshire Cat is very wonderfully done, and splendidly voiced by Stephen Fry. Alan Rickman is very good as the Caterpillar, for all that the movie isn't up to dealing with his philosophical speculations. The Queen of Hearts is very well envisioned, though she's played less as a playing card and more as The Remorseless Evil Poisoning the Fantasy Landscape--- Sauron, or perhaps Saurette. (Gandalf, by the way, is played by a dog named Bayard.)

Mr. Depp's fans will scream at me for saying this, but there is way too much Mad Hatter. (And the Hatter is not mad enough, at least not in an interesting way.) I understand why's he's horning in on so much of the movie: the studio had to fork over the big bucks for him, so they're determined to get their money's worth. But really, how does the heroic resistance fighter Mad Hatter swinging a claymore in deadly combat with the Assassin From Another Movie make any sense? Either in terms of his own character or the movie or anything at all?

(And really, do we need another reason for Depp to wear full makeup? Does he have complexion problems, or does Burton just enjoy smearing goop on his mug?)

I yawned through the climactic scene, which I'd seen before in other Grade C fantasy films. Perhaps I am unique in this regard, but I never can be brought to care which special effect skewers which other special effect.

It was the same as any other franchise movie sequel, which is to say that it took all the gnarly stuff that was special about the original and replaced it with lots of modern chase scenes and combats. Which can be done well--- I liked Robert Downey as Holmes--- but in this case the film was left detached from its moorings, scattering torn plot coupons as it floated off into that big computer-generated sky.

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Monday, March 01, 2010

Reviews Too Late: Princess Tutu

Knowing my strange fascination with girly anime, Jane Lindskold told me I'd like this one. She was right.

I liked Princess Tutu not only for itself, but for the fact that it constantly references Revolutionary Girl Utena, which--- as we all know--- is the Greatest TV Series of All Time. Tutu is a post-Utena artifact, the first that I've seen.

The backstory is rather complex, and begins with a battle between the heroic Prince Mytho and the evil Raven. Mytho drives the Raven from the world into a kind of pocket universe, and then falls on his own sword--- shattering his own heart in order to somehow seal the Raven off from the world. Mytho isn't killed, but without his heart becomes emotionally blank and highly suggestible.

But that's not the whole backstory, because the backstory is a fairy story, one told by the enchanter/storyteller Herr Drosselmeyer (borrowed from the plot of The Nutcracker.) Drosselmeyer has the ability to cause his stories to take shape in reality, which is probably the reason that someone--- it isn't clear who--- kills him, and cuts off his hands.

But Drosselmeyer isn't "100% dead," as they say in Princess Bride, and he still has power in the pocket universe inhabited by the Raven and Prince Mytho. His assassination left the story unfinished, and he's determined to finish it. And furthermore, he's going to make it a tragedy. (Getting killed and mutilated probably does give you a bleak outlook.)

A cute little yellow duckling--- conveniently named Duck (Ahiru)--- sees the blank-faced Prince Mytho dancing by the shore of a pond, and falls in love. Drosselmeyer gives Duck a magical gem which allows her to turn into a tweenage girl--- conveniently named Duck--- and enroll in the ballet school where Mytho is both a senior and a star. Whenever she "acts like a duck"--- usually by quacking in surprise--- she turns into a duck again, and can only change into a girl once she dives into water. (This provides a lot of low comedy, with Duck acting ducklike, and then transforming into a sopping wet naked tween.)

The pocket universe in which the events take place looks like a quaint fairy-tale German village, albeit one with a ballet school the size of the Pentagon dropped into it. As soon as Duck becomes human, other characters begin to take on more fairy-tale aspect, especially the ballet teacher Mr. Cat, who is a human-sized talking cat. The other students vaguely remember a time in which their teacher wasn't a talking cat, but this doesn't seem to matter. (We also meet Miss Anteater and Miss Crocodile.)

Prince Mytho's "heart shards" have flown into the universe at large, and have become attached to people who feel strong emotions, heightening their own feelings to the point of obsession.

Duck's magic gem glows when she's near one of the people who are pierced by a shard, which allows her to transform into the superheroine Princess Tutu. It's Tutu's job to collect the shards and return them to Mytho. She doesn't do this by confrontation or violence, but by challenging the victims to a pas-de-deux, danced to the music of the classic ballet that mirrors the victim's problem. Through the medium of dance, the victim confronts his/her own feelings, and surrenders the passion in question. Tutu then returns the shard to the emotionally blank Mytho, who thus begins to regain his own feelings.

But it's not just passionate people who oppose Tutu. There's the senior student Rue, who insists that she's Mytho's girlfriend and likes him just the way he is. There's Mytho's childhood friend Fakir, who has a weird, emotion-charged, possessive relationship with the lost prince. And eventually we meet the evil, calculating Princess Krahae, who seems to be an embodiment of the Raven.

Plus there's Duck's own ineptitude. When she isn't being Tutu, she's a singularly clumsy ballet student, and Mr. Cat is always sending her down to the probationary class. Duck is prone to panic and isn't able to explain herself fully--- which is perhaps lucky, since she's been told that if she ever confesses her love for Mytho, she'll disappear as a speck of light.

Which is, by the way, exactly the fate that Herr Drosselmeyer has in store. Remember that he's writing a tragedy. So if Duck disappears and everyone fails, their creator is happy, albeit Still Dead. Duck and the other characters must not only solve the problems within the story, they have to solve the meta-problem that is Drosselmeyer and somehow evade their fate and regain their freedom.

Parallels with Utena are many and deliberate. Both stories take place within a pocket universe in which a fairy-tale prince has been exiled. Both feature a protagonist equipped with a magic token, and determined to rescue a captive. Both feature stories of heroism and hope vs. cynicism and despair. There's a lot of water imagery in both stories, with water being the key to transformation. The antagonists in both stories are emotionally frozen--- in Utena they're caught by some powerful image in the past; in Tutu they're transfixed by their own overamped emotion. In both, stories end with a duel--- in Utena with swords, in Tutu a dance-off. Music is incredibly important in both stories.

And there are other parallels in the imagery--- too many to number altogether, though I take note of phallus-shaped formal gardens and the fact that Krahae's flight of crows resembles the flying swarm of swords that carry the hatred of the world in Utena.

I've only seen the first season, but I intend to see the second.

If you like nothing else, you'll like the music.


History Channel

What the hell happened to the History Channel? It's all Pawn Stars, Tougher in Alaska, American Pickers, Ax Men . . . all reality TV!

Where's my freakin' history?

I guess it went to the same place as all the learning on the Learning Channel.