Thursday, December 31, 2009

If Only I Paid More Attention to Industry News...

...I'd have no time for anything else. I don't know how those other bloggers do it.

Anyway, I just now, after months of it being common knowledge, discover that the summer of 2010 will see the release of...wait for it...

New Bone books!



Oh, I'm delirious with happiness even though sequels and prequels to gargantuan self-contained epics are usually bad news. After all, more Bone is more Bone.

The first volume to be released will be Bone: Tall Tales, which will feature Smiley Bone telling stories to a group of Bone Scouts. The tales will include the existing prequel Stupid Stupid Rat-Tails, about the Bones' eponymous ancestor Big Johnson Bone. His tale is currently in black-and-white, but in the new version will be in color, along with two other Big Johnson Bone stories. The other tale in the collection is a "lost chapter" of Bone that originally appeared in Disney Adventures Magazine, but didn't make it into the final Bone compilation. This is presumably the same story that appears in full in The Art of Bone.

The other books coming out are a trilogy of novels written by Tom Sniegoski under the title Bone: Quest for the Spark, featuring a new set of Bones traveling to the Valley (don't Bones ever vacation anywhere else?).

This is making it harder and harder for me to make my goal of one day reading the entire Bone saga from beginning to end in a single euphoric sitting. Before, I thought all I needed was the last remaining mini-comic, which comes with the Phoney Bone action figure, but now I see I need some additional volumes as well. I'd better stock up on beer, quiche, and hard, stuffed bread-thingies to sustain me during this reading task, which is looking increasingly arduous.

(See the info over at Boneville.com.)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

On That Note...

You may have heard that singing is like praying twice, but what they didn't tell you is that singing off-key is like blaspheming twice.

(I've caught a cold, and that makes me grouchy.)

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Movie Review: Avatar



The technology that made this movie is 3v1L!!1

Avatar, written and directed by James Cameron. Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, and Stephen Lang. 20th Century Fox (2009). 161 freaking minutes for a glorified action flick. Rated PG-13. USCCB Rating is A-III--Adults.

Avatar is the most expensive movie ever made, and, as with the last movie I remember being touted repeatedly as the most expensive ever made (that would be Waterworld), I'm unsure where exactly all the money went.

For a film that basically amounts to almost three hours (ugh!) of eye-candy, it has garnered a lot of controversy, so I'll be up front: Because I like to be like that, I'm going to buck the trend of conservative Catholic blogs and give this movie a thumb up, with reservations. If you want the resoundingly negative view of things, I recommend Catholic Media Review. For non-Catholic posts that say more-or-less the same thing, check orgtheory, which compares it unfavorably to District 9, and io9, which dwells over-long on the "race" issue.

I agree with most everything in the reviews I just cited except maybe that rather un-Catholic part in the Catholic Media Review article about forced neutering, so why do I approve of Avatar? Well, first--and I'm actually serious here--I can't hate a movie that looks uncannily like a film version of a story I wrote in middle school, complete, believe it or not, with disenchanted space marine, jungle planet, physics-bending vortex, floating mountains, wire-fu humanoid aliens, evil human colonists, furry alien ninja princess babe, and nature mother goddess. Second, I hate discussions of "race," an artificial concept that should be dead, but which is perpetuated by bigots and people who want to use it for political capital, so I have my John-C.-Wright-esque sense filters set to mostly ignore it. So, while everyone else was noticing that Avatar hates pale-skinned people with a passion, I was enjoying watching the battles between dragons and helicopters. Dragons vs. helicopters! The last time I got to watch dragons vs. helicopters, it was in Dragon Wars: D-War, a movie much, much worse than this one.

On the downside, this movie appears to have been written by a middle schooler. I am currently suing Cameron, but I don't expect it will do me any good, since his lawyer has better wire-fu than mine. (In case anyone didn't know, in the sf world, we "sue" with ninja.)

What have we got here? Basically, it's the plot from the flopped Battle for Terra, only with more running-time, better CGI, and a less stupid name for the alien planet. It's Planet Pandora, and t3H 3V1L military-industrial complex, where they talk like Texans, is mining the planet for the mineral unobtainium, a mineral so important and valuable and stupid-sounding that we don't know what it does (though it looks kind of like slag). For using the name "unobtainium," Cameron is being sued by ninja from the guys who made The Core, but I hear their wire-fu isn't too good either. And their movie sux.

Pandora is inhabited by the Na'vi, an alien race with one of those apostrophes in its name that sf writers are so fond of. The Na'vi are basically ten-foot gracile blue furries, equipped, we are assured, with naturally-occurring carbon-fiber bones so they can do their wire-fu. Their culture and religion are a conglomeration of romanticized, cleaned-up noble savage stereotypes that could only be concocted by a modern man sitting in an air-conditioned office: they've got gender equality, pantheistic nature goddess worship, and utter peacefulness, even though they have weapons and a warrior class. Cameron apparently wanted them to be free of agriculture, but still wanted them to have large domesticated animals, so he came up with a clever excuse: hidden in their ponytails, the Na'vi have little tendrils they can plug into the tendrils on the various wild beasts they ride, producing an instantaneous mind-meld. I wonder how a handy feature like that evolved.

Absent from this romanticized culture are any of the possible bad elements: wife-stealing, polygamy, self-mutilation, human sacrifice, slaves, and tribal feuds (though they still have warriors!). Heck, they even keep the piercings and tatoos to a minimum. I admit I can't swallow this: with the rich resources, we should have some more complex societies here, some more sophisticated art, maybe some proto-empires, perhaps some agriculture. People who arm themselves to the teeth and ride around on dragons or six-legged land seahorses and boast of their strength in battle would not live happy and peaceful in their trees without ever bothering their neighbors. The film covers the poor world-building with plenty of lavish visuals illustrating both the jungle and the Na'vi way of life, so the only flaw that really becomes glaring before the fridge logic is the Na'vi talk about religion: it doesn't sound real; these people live in a harsh, deadly environment made up of wall-to-wall CGI monsters, but they can only think of their pantheistic mother-nature-deity as utterly benevolent. Right. At least in my middle school version the mother goddess was wrathful and capricious. Where's the magic? The sacrifices? The rituals? The shamans? Why don't the Na'vi feel the natural need to propitiate their gods--on whose whims their lives constantly depend--so nature doesn't get out of control?

Where was I? Anyway, t3H 3v1L humans have two conflicting ways of keeping the Na'vi at bay. One is a standing military with plenty of airships, mecha, and musclebound space marines led by Miles Quaritch, played by Stephen Lang, who, it must be said, pulls of the one-dimensional Hollywood stereotype of the crazy, bigoted, violent marine probably better than anyone else could. His face looks carved from wood, his voice grates like sandpaper, and his 3D-enhanced muscles bulge off the screen. On top of that, he on several occasions convincingly demonstrates his total awesomeness by disdaining the planet's poisonous atmosphere, firing cool-looking guns, drinking coffee during a mission, piloting a mech, and dodging various literal and figurative bullets.

(Oh, that reminds me--reason to like Avatar #2: mecha vs. giant panther!)

The second means the humans have of dealing with the Na'vi is the "avatar aystem," where a human pilot gets in something that looks like a cross between a tanning booth and an MRI and remotely operates a genetically engineered Na'vi body. (I notice a few reviews complain that the avatar system is never given an adequate technical explanation, but the basic idea has been done before in various places from James Tiptree Jr's "Girl Who Was Plugged In" to the recent Surrogates, so I don't see what the explanation could have added besides tedium.) The avatar program is led by Dr. Grace Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver reprising her role as peevish and violent nature-lover from Gorillas in the Mist. The latest addition to her crew of avatar pilots is paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who at the last minute is hired to replace his recently deceased twin brother. When Sully, Augustine, and some other avatars are out on a mission collecting botanical samples, Sully's avatar gets separated from the others by the attacks, in rapid succession, of a hammer-headed triceratops, a giant panther, and a pack of glowy devil-dogs.

(Reason to like Avatar #3: mecha vs. hammer-headed triceratops pack!)

At that point, the furry ninja space jungle princess babe Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) saves his bacon and he soon finds himself a member of her tribe. When he's not piloting his avatar, he's giving information to the soldiers back at t3H 3v1L mining complex, much to the delight of crazy marine Quaritch. When he is piloting his avatar, he's going native and getting his make on with Neytiri, who falls for him even though she apparently knows he's a glorified doll.

Impatient with the situation, Quaritch decides to drink coffee and launch an airstrike against Neytiri's tree-dwelling tribe, at which point Sully, Augustine, and a few other characters who may or may not have names, side with the Na'vi and round up tribal warriors from all over (no inter-tribal warfare, remember?) to duke it out with the humans in a big helicopter-vs.-dragon battle amongst a maze of giant floating mountains.

(No explanation is given for the floating mountains other than a little hand-wave about a "vortex." One of them even has a waterfall, although there's nowhere the water could be coming from. In my middle school version, at least, the vortex and subsequent floating mountains were actually central to the plot and given some attempt at an explanation. Here they apparently exist only for the purpose of looking cool. But they do look pretty cool.)

So, is it the best-looking CGI movie ever? Probably. And the final climactic battle sequence is the prettiest and most exciting piece of sf action eye-candy I can think of off the top of my head, even though it's ridiculous: all of a sudden, the stone arrowheads that previously bounced off the airship cockpits are going straight through and piercing the pilots inside. For the record, stone arrows have a hard time going through cured buffalo hide, so I would guess they'd be mostly harmless against shatterproof glass or Kevlar. The Na'vi and their dragons are depicted as being on a more-or-less equal footing with their high-tech opponents, but it's not at all believable. If Cameron wanted realism, I suppose he could have instead depicted interminable sabotage, terrorism, and guerrilla warfare as the humans slowly but inevitably ate their way across the planet's surface, justifying the devastation by pointing out the brutality of their opponents while the Na'vi justified their brutality by pointing out the humans' rapine use of resources and destruction of sacred sites. That of course would have been both less exciting and more depressing.

I don't really think this is the anti-white-people movie some are making it out to be. It looks to me more like an anti-human movie. When Quaritch is giving one of his kill-all-the-furries speeches, the camera focuses in on a dark-skinned fellow cheering, as if the film is assuring us, "Don't worry, we hate black people too!" The deus ex machina ending (spoiler warning for the rest of this paragraph) where the Na'vi send the humans packing and Sully sheds his human body to take up permanent residence in his avatar gives the impression that the movie simply wants to leave us with the idea that nature is good and humans are scum.

(Never mind that the humans will be back in a few years with a bigger army and a heapload of ticked-offedness. By the way, in my middle school version, the story ended not with the aliens sending the humans away, but with the aliens slaughtering the humans mercilessly--including women and children--leaving the gone-native ex-marine looking out over the carnage in horror at what he had wrought.)

How much does all this bug me? Well, I am a little annoyed to find my idea walked away and entered Cameron's head because I sat on it too long, but other than that, not very much. I don't know about you guys, but I like me some misanthropic sf. I was first turned on to misanthropic sf by C. S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet, in which the benevolent nature-loving Martians are in the right and the humans are pretentious, silly, and funny-looking. Then there's Andre Norton's Victory on Janus, which I probably read in middle school, in which the aliens are magical nature-loving elves and the humans are ugly and stinky, but can turn into magical nature-loving elves if they find the treasure traps that give them the Green Sick. I think it was J. R. R. Tolkien who said something about fairy tales turning the face of "scorn and pity" toward humanity, giving us a chance to step outside of ourselves, as well as we are able, and criticize.

But such criticism can take two forms. On the one hand, it can result in humility. In the book Original Sin, Alan Jacobs proposes that this is what we see in Shakespeare's comedies, where all the characters are made to look foolish. Humiliated, they celebrate: they are able to laugh at themselves because they can see what absurd creatures they really are, and self-knowledge makes them humble and happy. Something similar takes place in Out of the Silent Planet, where the anti-human bits are laced with good humor.

On the other hand, it can result in self-loathing and suicidal fantasy, and that appears to be what we have in Avatar. Even though I lurv the dragons vs. helicopters, the explicit (and unnecessary) War on Terror references coupled with the gleeful depictions of American soldiers getting killed by spears and toothy animals leaves me with a bad aftertaste. During the final battle, I was thinking, "That is so cool, I wish it were couched in a better story." Avatar reminds me of one of those documentaries fantasizing about how much better the world might be if all the people just keeled over and died. Seeing this coming on the heels of such things as Life After People or the Day the Earth Stood Still remake makes me wonder if our culture currently has a death wish. Looking at the topics occupying our politics and the way we talk about them, I'm inclined to think it does.

I do find this funny, though: After the movie is done telling us the human race sux and technology is bad, the end credits roll. The end credits consist almost entirely of special effects artists. It took a lot of people and a lot of technology to bring this movie into existence.

Short Addendum: I respectfully disagree with the reviewer at io9 who says the basic premise here (dude moves into a new culture, goes native, and ends up as leader) is driven by white guilt. It can certainly be used to express white guilt, but I think the basic premise is really just Lawrence of Arabia...IN SPACE!

Second Short Addendum: Before, I made some personal jabs at Cameron in this review, but I've taken them out as I'm trying to get over my bad habit of making personal jabs. My apologies to my readers.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Avatar:

Myth Level: High (pretty much the same basic story as Dune)

Quality: Medium-High (pretty darn good-looking movie with a script not as weak as they say but nowhere near what it could have been)

Ethics/Religion: It's a toss-up; heavy on action violence and foul language, with a seriously self-hating plot

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

John Granger on Twilight

As we've made clear, I have no great love for the Twilight franchise, but, nonetheless, some of the criticisms of the series kind of get on my nerves. I must agree that Stephenie Meyer doesn't succeed at writing a chaste teen romance, but I still give her credit for making the attempt.

(And if you want to talk conspiracy theories, I prefer the one that Twilight is a Catholic attempt to keep teens from having premarital sex. I'm pleased to say that I was in on this conspiracy, and that Twilight was written by a committee of mediocre Catholic authors posing as Mormons in order to maintain our cover. Being from Utah, and being a mediocre Catholic author, I was selected to write a five-page description of Edward Cullen's gorgeously chiseled pecs. I was a little embarrassed, when I received my contributor's copy, to find that the entire five pages had been included in the final draft, surrounded by about 300 similar pages.)

(Image minus captions stolen from Spes Unica.)

When Lucky, Snuffles, and I put together our review, I considered discussing Meyer's Mormon faith and its influence on Twilight, but I didn't feel competent do dive into that subject, and when I went to find outside resources, all I uncovered were sarcastic essays with anti-Mormon chips on their shoulders. However, I recently came across John Granger's "Mormon Vampires in the Garden of Eden" from Touchstone, an article that looks at the topic both deeply and respectfully, but quite critically. Granger offers an insightful discussion that falls into neither fangirlish hysterics nor reactionary anti-Twilight hysterics.

Granger attributes the popularity of the series partly to its religious basis:

When God is driven to the periphery of the public square, the human spiritual capacity longs for exercise, and it often finds it in the “suspension of disbelief” and activity of the imagination that are available in novels and movies.

The books and films that satisfy this spiritual longing most profoundly are the ones that have religious content of some kind, sometimes any kind. [more...]
Granger summarizes Twilight thus:
Which brings us to Twilight. These Gothic romances featuring atypical vampires and werewolf champions are allegories about the love relationship between God and Man. They are, in fact, a re-telling of the Garden of Eden drama--with a Mormon twist. Here, the Fall is a good thing, even the key to salvation and divinization, just as Joseph Smith, Jr., the Latter-day Saint prophet, said it was. Twilight conveys the appealing message that the surest means to God are sex and marriage. [more...]
The rest of the essay fleshes out that theme, and I encourage all our readers to read it. I will only note one odd detail that will probably catch most people's eyes: he places the origins of Mormonism in the 1600s, but I think he only means that Mormonism has certain precursors that date that early.

Update: It's only fair to post contrary views, and Granger's essay is unsurprisingly controversial. A reader kindly passes along a couple of links. The first is Tyler Chadwick's "Where Twilight Studies Meet Mormon Studies," and the second is "Mormon Vampires in the Garden of Eden?" by Daniel O. McClellan. I'm not interested in getting embroiled in an argument on the subject, but I think it's reasonable to note that Granger does indeed have to make some big assumptions to put together the narrative he wants.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

News from the Fish Bowl: Archaeology for Christmas

Hi, it's me, Lucky. I haven't posted in a long time because I've been with Snuffles in his cave. He doesn't get Internet access up there. He also doesn't pick up his dirty socks off the floor.

I wanted to do a news post over our break, and I just found out that the first-known house from the time of Jesus is being excavated in Nazareth. This is CBS:

Just days before Christmas, there has been a significant archaeological find in Jesus' hometown. Israeli archaeologists say they've found the first house in Nazareth dating back to the time of Christ.

"The character of the walls is typical of Jewish villages in the early Roman period. So this would be the sort of house that Jesus or people of his period would have lived in," said Yardena Alexandre of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who headed the excavation. [more...]

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Today is the last Sunday of Advent. I am presently at home where I am luxuriating in non-homeworkness. The family is visiting: Snuffles, Frederick, Phenny, and Lucky all flew in. As I've decided I think I could handle keeping a goldfish, Lucky is currently deciding whether she wants to come to the seminary with me or return to Snuffles's party cave. Frederick is hunting for an apartment and/or stable, as he has informed me he can't stand sharing Snuffle's domicile. Sounds as if the gang's breaking up, which rather makes me sad.

We were hoping to have received a Christmas letter from Rocky the Space Mouse by now. His writing has become more infrequent as he has become more involved in protecting our solar system from the terrors of the Beyond. I think all of us are worried about him, most especially Lucky, who was particularly close to him while he was here. Unfortunately, we no longer have a reliable address to write to him ourselves, since the Martian base was destroyed. Last we heard, his unit was near Saturn preparing an ambush against the Beyonders' Shadow Armada, but that was months ago.

At any rate, whatever happens, Lucky, Snuffles, Frederick, Phenny, and I are all together now and will be together through Christmas. I didn't realize how much I missed these guys.

Keep Mass in Christmas.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Douglas Wolk on Immanuel Kant

Douglas Wolk explains Immanuel Kant's "Critique of of Aesthetic Judgment" with comic books in this enlightening video, which I highly recommend.

Oh yeah, and Keep Mass in Christmas.

Friday, December 11, 2009

An Open Letter to My Professor

Dear Professor,

I was unable to turn in my homework today because of the immutable laws of physics, for which I should not be held responsible.

When I returned to my dorm room in the late afternoon, I immediately sat down at my desk to do the work you had assigned. However, when I sat down, I noticed that my desk was quite cluttered. Remembering the maxim that behind a clear desk is a clear mind, I set about organizing the desk in preparation for my homework.

I was unaware of just how disorganized my desk had become; I did not realize it had reached a dangerous level of entropy. Because decreasing entropy in any given system, such as by organizing the desk, must inevitably result in an overall increase in the entropy of the surroundings, the process of organizing the desk raised the level of entropy in my dorm room to the point that all complex interactions (such as doing homework) became impossible.

At a critical juncture, the level of entropy increased until my dorm room collapsed into that most entropic of objects, a black hole. Because the spontaneous formation of virtual photons near the event horizon will cause a black hole--especially a very small one--to evaporate, it was only a few microseconds before my entire dorm room, completely with my bed, my books, my desk, and my homework, dissipated in the form of unrecoverable energy.

In short, Professor, I was unable to complete the assignment and would like to ask you for an extension.

Sincerely,

The Deej

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Pro-Life Update

The Nelson-Hatch-Casey Amendment in the Senate has been defeated. Please write or call your senators to urge them to defeat the health care bill.

A Suggestion--

Those darn supermassive black holes are the universe's greatest contributors to cosmic entropy, and I think we should sign a petition to make them stop.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Hey, Kiddies, Santa Claus is Dead!

WARNING: EXTREMELY CHILD-UNFRIENDLY POST! SEND CHILDREN OUT OF THE ROOM NOW! NOW, I TELL YOU! T3H H0RR0R! T3H H0RR0R!!1

Okay, so I recently discovered that a forensic scientist has measured the skull of St. Nicholas and reconstructed his face. You hear that, kiddies? Santa Clause is dead! Dead!! And we've got his skull!!!

The story, which is a year old, comes to us from Holy Eucharist Parish, a Ukranian Catholic parish in Winnepeg. That site links the Proceedings of the Royal Society for the Advancement of Knowledge in the Natural Sciences, which gives a nice little overview of the history and legendry of jolly ol' Saint Nick, and then proceeds to discuss his relics:

In May 1087 (21 years after the Normal Conquest of England, and 33 years after the schism between Constantinople and Rome), Italian mercenaries and sailors entered Myra on the South coast of Turkey to retrieve the relics of Saint Nicholas. The stolen remains were then taken to the Basilica di San Nicola, Bari, Italy, where they remain to this day. (N.b.: please see the references below for the resting places of other parts of Nicholas. Also please note that the Royal Society does not have any portion of Old St Nick in its attic.)

A certain Professor Francesco Introna (coincidentally from Bari, Italy) has studied the relics in the modern day, and commissioned Dr Caroline Wilkinson of Manchester University to reconstruct the face of the bishop, using tools now familiar through forensic police work, which have also shed light on the faces of Tutankhamun and Copernicus through similar reconstruction. [more...]

That site in turn sends us to a newspaper article in the Guardian for more information about the reconstruction process.

The Royal Society also gives us a picture of the reconstruction. So here it is, the real face of Santa Claus:



I assume the whiteness of the beard is more-or-less an artistic flourish, though if it weren't there, we would all likely riot. But never mind that; as the above linked sources tell us, the most interesting feature of the face is the healed, broken nose, which our sources conjecture was received in a fist-fight with Arius at the Council of Nicaea. As I've said before, you do not mess with Santa.

In reality, of course, what our sources don't know, but what we know, is that these actually are the remains of Arius. Santa faked his death before taking his harrowing journey northward. After many arduous adventures during which the saint demonstrated his fortitude and bravery, he at last arrived in the land of the frozen north where he encountered (and subsequently converted) a race of elves that had emerged from the Hollow Earth via the Symmes Hole at the North Pole. These elves had already bred a magical race of flying reindeer, and they assisted Santa in building his massive military-industrial complex at the Black Precipice (that is, the great lodestone mountain near the Pole, which causes compass arrows to point north) in order to bring his generosity to the children of the world through the delivery of toys to stockings. He then sent his cloned agents, known as Mall Santas, out into the world to gather intelligence on which children were naughty, which ones nice.

This business was moving along nicely for over a millennium and a half until an ambassador from Mars offered Santa, who had grown jaded by the consumerism with which his operation had become surrounded, the opportunity to start afresh on a new world. Though tempted, he rejected the offer--except the Martians wouldn't take no for an answer. The Martians attacked Santa's workshop complex, and the mechanized elfin units were unable to fight them off. The workshop was destroyed, and Santa and his reindeer were taken hostage. On Mars, Santa discovered two races of Martians--the evil Nutkrakerians and their slaves, the Ratulians. The Nutkrakerians dominated the Ratulians with their superior technology, particularly their battle mecha known as TORGs. The Ratulians, however, were familiar with an ancient form of high-flying wire-fu that took advantage of Mars's low gravity. After converting them to Christianity, Santa led the Ratulians in a slave revolt, assisted, of course, by his reindeer--particularly Rudolph, whose nose can not only glow, but fire energy blasts. In the end, Santa fought a one-on-one mecha battle with Lord Volmar, the Nutkrakerian emperor, before returning to Earth, and the North Pole, in triumph.

As I said, you do not mess with Santa.




Keep Mass in Christmas.