Saturday, July 31, 2010

Robots of Myth And Legend: Saint Albert and Pure Awesomeness

A reader writes in to ask me about the origin of the legend that Saint Albertus Magnus built a clever automaton.  The same reader, helpfully, submits a link to something I hadn't seen before, the Supplement to Mr. Chambers's cyclop√¶dia: or, universal dictionary of arts and sciences, which contains an article on automata reporting the following:
Authors sometimes speak of brazen heads made under certain constellations, capable not only of speaking, but of prophesying, and rendering oracles.  Henry de Villeine, Virgil, pope Silvester, Robert of Lincoln, and Roger Bacon, are said to have had such figures.  Albertus Magnus, it is pretended, went further.   He made a compleat man, or Androides....   It is generally said to have been composed of a mixture of divers metals, though some will have it to have been made of flesh and bones. It was burnt by Thomas Aquinas.--This Androides, it seems, solved all problems, and cleared up all difficulties for its author...  [more...]
Kicking around amongst my resources, I discover I have a copy of "Alien Intellect and the Roboticization of the Scientist" by Sarah L. Higley, an article that appeared in Camera Obscura 1997 14(1-2 40-41):129-160. The article is feminist and includes some nonsense about the legends of talking bronze heads representing giant penises, or something. But though Higley's theorizing is worthless, she fills her article with interesting information.  According to her, the legend of St. Albert's android comes to us from the thirteenth-century Rosaio della Vita.  Dear reader, that is probably the place to go to find the legend.

But the most interesting part of Higley's article is most definitely her summary of a twelfth-century Pali text called the Romavisaya, a text on which I have been able to find no further information.  I reproduce Higley's summary so you can revel in the kick-awesomeness of this fascinating medieval text from Burma.  Can anyone possibly tell me where I can get a copy?
"The Kingdom of Rome" (Romavisaya) is taken from the Lokapannati, a collection of medieval Pali tales about the marvels of King Asoka.  Rome, so the story goes, trains bahulayantakara, or "machine makers," who construct bhuta-vahana-yanta, or "spirit-bearing engines," for "commerce, agriculture, capturing, and executions."  Force to write their names in a book each month, these engineers are kept under close surveillance lest they spread their technology to Rome's enemies.  If they are missing form Rome, a flying execution machine follows them and beheads them.  Despite the Roman king's efforts, news of his technology has spread to the East, and one young Burman decides that he will steal this information and make "as many of these machines as there are people here in Pataliputta."  He arranges, somehow, to be reborn in the Kingdom of Rome where he marries the daughter of the chief engineer of the robots.  She gives him the secrets of their construction, and he writes them down on a leaflet which he sews into the flesh of his thigh.  He then tells his son to have his body buried in Burma when he is assassinated, as he will be, for he intends to leave the Kingdom of Rome.  He does, he is beheaded, his body taken back to Pataliputta, his thigh opened, the blueprints retrieved, and the moving statues constructed by his son.  the son makes for King Ajatasattu an army of moving mechanical warriors who guard the doors to his buried sacred relic.  The king dies, his sanctuary is forgotten, and Asoka, Ajatasattu's grandson, finds and unearths it, only to be stopped by the mechanical vigilance of the moving statues.  He pays the (incredibly long-lived) son of the engineer from Rome to dismantle the mechanism so he can secure the relic for his own status.  "How is it," wonders the Roman emperor meanwhile, "that the technology of Burma resembles so closely our secret technology?"  He send a gift to Asoka which the greedy king orders the engineer to open.  the android emerges, cuts off the unfortunate servant's head, and flies back to Rome.  [Sarah L. Higley, "Alien Intellect and the Roboticization of the Scientist," Camera Obscura 14.1-2,40-41 (1997):132-133]

Dave Armstrong on Anne Rice

Catholic apologist and popularizer Dave Armstrong has a lengthy discussion on his blog Biblical Evidence for Catholicism of author Anne Rice's abandonment of Catholicism:
Note that it is not enough for her to cease being a Catholic. She is ditching any other form of communal, denominational Christianity, too. The examples of people expressing actual overt hatred or purported hatred that she cites are not Catholic ones (they are mostly Baptists). There are several liberal denominations where her liberal views would fit right in. [more...]

Friday, July 30, 2010

The (Tardy) Feast of Saint Martha

(borrowed from Under the Gables)

I had no access to the Internet yesterday and so missed putting up a post about one of most important saints in the liturgical calendar of The Sci Fi Catholic.  I mean of course, Saint Martha, one of the "dragon saints" who tamed a dragon with a combination of her sanctity and an article of her clothing.

Saint Martha was sister of Mary of Bethany and of Lazarus.  She it was who asked Jesus to tell Mary to help her with the housework.  Legendry has her preaching the Gospel in France and dealing with a dragon ravaging the local populace.  According to The Golden Legend, this ferocious dragon farted fire rather than breathing it, and Saint Martha tamed the monster by casting holy water on it, showing it the cross, and throwing her girdle around its neck, at which point it became meek and tame, and she led it to town to be slaughtered.

Ernest Ingersoll, who prefers the version of Scottish novelist Mona Caird, has a different story in his Dragons and Dragon Lore:
While Martha was preaching Christianity to the pagan people at Arles an urgent message was sent to her from Tarascon, reciting that an awful dragon called the Tarasque, whose lair was in the neighbouring desert of Crau, was killing the Tarasconais, and they begged her to come and destroy it. She gladly complied, and going to his cave was able, by sheer force of lovingness (and a sprinkler of holy water), to subdue and regenerate the ravaging Tarasque, so that he meekly followed her into the midst of the astonished populace. "Along the bright ways of the city," as the legend goes, "the procession moved: a crowd of excited people, a beautiful woman with the light playing round her head, leading by a silken cord a reformed monster who ambles after her as quietly as if he were a pet lamb. . . . And never again did he ravage the country or carry off so much as a single babe after Ste. Marthe had pointed out to him, with her usual sweet reasonableness, how wrong-headed and how essentially immoral such conduct had been." So Mona Caird pictures the scene of the deliverance from a devouring creature more dreadful, if we can credit mediaeval descriptions, than anything we have thus far discovered in this history of beastly demons--a figure worthy to represent the hellish character of the Teutonic invasion of this fair land 2000 years ago.
See?  Saint Martha is a practical saint who just wants a little help around the house.  When she deals with a dragon, she doesn't need a sword or any nonsense like that.  She just tells the creature it's being naughty and expects it to shape up and fly right.  By the way, this legend, and some others like it, form the basis of my novella, Dragonsaint.

Meanwhile, Fish Eaters, a hardcore Traditionalist website that apparently takes its hagiography very seriously, claims the dragon was a real species, now extinct.  *Sigh.*  A Sci Fi Catholic's work is never done.

Repeat after me:  I can distinguish folklore from history, and Harry Potter doesn't really do magic.  I can distinguish folklore from history, and Harry Potter doesn't really do magic...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Quick Link

This has to be passed on to readers (it's old, but I just saw it):

Barack Obama Looking at Awesome Things

Hat tip:  Claw of the Conciliator

Title Identification Courtesy of the Sci Fi Catholic

A reader writes in asking for title and author of a story he read years ago.  Here is the information from the requester:
About 10 years ago, I picked up a book of scifi stories off my lab's bookshelf and read a few of the stories. One of these was set in a a post-semi-fall-of-society-world, where the Church was heavily persecuted. I don't remember much about the actual plot, except that a priest or religious had been sent to check out a holy hermit living in the hills to find out if he was the real deal or not. I remember the priest, having to hide the fact that he was a priest, would wear a jacket or other garment with buttons to use for praying the rosary. I remember he rode a robass. I personally did not have trouble figuring out what this meant, but a helpful previous reader had scribbled out the formula "robot + ass = robass" in the margin. Actually, that equation, and it's family of spin-offs, is probably the reason why I remember this story at all still today.
[SPOILER!]

...I think the "big twist" is that the hermit is an android who calls himself St. Something-Or-Other, but of course he doesn't know he's an android, and the priest is left with the decision of what to do. The old, is it better to give people hope, or what's the harm type of fingernail biting. The best I can remember, the title of the story was something like, "Looking for St. Something-Or-Other"....  I read it in 1999 or 2000, but I'm guessing the book was not new at all at that point.
The story you desire is "The Quest for Saint Aquin" by Anthony Boucher, first published in 1951.  You may have read it in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One.  I confess I haven't read it myself, though I've read many other titles in that collection.  Here's the story's Wikipedia page and its Technovelgy page describing the robass.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Quick Link

And in this "just plain disheartening" section of the Real Life is Weirder Than SF Department, we have this from Creative Minority Report.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Movie Review: Inception

Inception
Guns, dreams, and a lot of shared needles.

Inception, written and directed by Christopher Nolan.  Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Ellen Page.  Warner Bros. (2010).  Runtime 148 minutes.  Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence throughout.  Catholic News Service Rating is AIII--Adults.

I saw this mostly because I heard the hype.  It lives up to the hype.  It's not exactly a smart movie in the sense of having anything important on its mind, but it is certainly a clever movie, well-constructed and thoroughly entertaining.  It's also much better written than the usual action film.

The premise is that high-tech thieves have acquired devices, first developed by the military, that allow people to share dreams.  Teams of criminals use these gadgets to build elaborate dreamworlds and infiltrate the minds of corporate executives to steal their secrets.  Working to stop them are "subconscious projections," unreal people populating the dreamworld, who become violent and attack the criminals in the dream when they realize the dreamer's mind has been invaded.

A Japanese businessman, Saito (Ken Watanabe) wants not to steal, but to implant an idea into the mind of a rival, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), to convince him to break up his monolithic corporation after the death of his father.  Planting an idea in someone's mind is apparently more difficult than extraction, so Saito hires the master dream-thief Cobb (Leonadro DiCaprio), who proceeds to put together a team to pull the caper by creating a dream within a dream within a dream.  In each successive level of dream, times slows down, and each dream level is affected by the one above it.  At each level, they mess with Fischer's mind in clever ways as they are constantly hunted by Fischer's subconscious projections, who, because Fischer has been trained to ward off dream-thieves, take the form of armed soldiers.  All the while, Cobb is also hunted by his own subconscious in the form of his dead wife, whose untimely and violent appearances jeopardize the mission.

Inception has some impressive writing.  The viewer is dropped into the middle of the story, and details are fleshed out at a steady pace, with occasional plausible-sounding psychobabble thrown in to help make the premise easier to swallow.  Although many of the goings-on in the dreamworld are wacky, information comes at a perfect rate to keep things from getting confusing.  The different levels of dream are also easy to distinguish, but they affect each other in clever ways, so while in the first level of dream the characters are sleeping in a van during a high-speed chase, gravity in the next level keeps shifting as the van goes around tight corners or free-falls through the air.  This results in, among other things, a gravity-free fistfight in a hotel hallway, probably the movie's highlight.  Other creative visuals include Escheresque architecture and, my favorite, a city that bends over backwards so half of it is in the sky.

Through it all, in addition to imaginative scenery and frequent action sequences, we get a steady development of the characters' backgrounds.  The details of Cobb's tragic past form the most important backstory, but perhaps more moving, if less detailed, is the development of the relationship between Fischer and his father.  Far from being the sniveling, spoiled son of a powerful magnate, Fischer is a good man who wants desperately to have a happy relationship with the father who never loved him.  It's a bit cliche, but it pulls all the right strings and pushes the right buttons.

But it also makes me feel more for Fischer than for any of the crooks manipulating his mind.  Crime capers usually leave a bad taste in my mouth:  They are stories about people who we are apparently supposed to sympathize with, but who have not even the slightest twinges of conscience when they steal massive amounts of money or, in this case, screw with a guy's head.  And the way they screw with his head, although it leads to the film's most moving scenes, is particularly nasty.  Cobb's backstory and his motivations make him a sympathetic character, but that doesn't change what he and his teammates are doing.  The film misses out on those elements that enable the audience to root for criminals:  They aren't stealing from the rich to give to the poor, nor are they trying to bring down an evil overlord.  Their mission is to help a businessman scam another businessman, so even the appearance of some sympathetic backstory doesn't make them look particularly good.

The nastiness of what they're doing isn't lost on the writer, however.  Shared dreaming is compared to a drug; it's highly addictive, and those who do it too much lose their ability to dream normally.  This his highlighted both in the character of Cobb, who can't dream on his own, and in the fresh-faced and always lovely Ellen Page, who plays Ariadne, a talented architect brought onto the team to design the dreamworlds.  She's addicted to shared dreaming after trying it only once, and so quickly tumbles into Cobb's world of high-tech corporate espionage.

But having made my little objection to caper movies, I have to admit it's one of the finest sf films I've seen in recent days, one that latches onto an interesting sf idea and sees how far it can take it.  In that, it most reminds me of Minority Report, though The Matrix is also its obvious ancestor.

Content Advisor:  Contains frequent but mostly mild action violence and occasional coarse language.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Discovered Website: Godchecker.com

I was kicking around for a bit of information for something I'm writing and came upon Godchecker.com, which has a massive compedium of gods from various pantheons around the world.  The layout is slick, and the information, at least from what I'm seeing so far, looks to reasonably good for an internet site, if a bit flip.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Another Maintenance Day

...The number of social services you have to register a blog with to make it visible is really amazing.  Right now, I'm fighting with a service (not to be named) I had previously registered with, but which now won't integrate my account properly, so thinks this blog is already claimed by somebody else.  Perfect.  I suppose I'll be contacting maintenance.

Note that each post now has new buttons to play with at the bottom.  Very soon, navigating to this blog will cause everyone immediate sensory overload, and you won't be able to see the content through the social bookmarking buttons and widgets.  Notice we have a Facebook like button in the sidebar, too.  I'm still trying to figure out how to get that in each post, but I need to do something fancy with code or something.

That reminds me:  I need to find a news ticker to replace the old one that crashed.

Oh, and by the way, pickafig.com, the Catholic social bookmarking site, is awful.  Most of the time I try to navigate to that site, the server's crashed, and their widgets are primitive in the extreme.  What do you mean I have to publish my post, copy the URL of my post into your button code, edit the post again, and paste in the edited code?  I'm suppose to do that every time I post just so one or two of my readers who click the button can see your 503 error page?

I guess it wouldn't be Catholic if it were technology-savvy; I mean, when's the last time you saw a Catholic parish website that was updated regularly?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

John C. Wright Likes The Last Airbender

John C. Wright, who I refer to too many times on this blog, is a literary genius.  More than once I have thought to review one or more of his novels here, and every time I have floundered.  I feel like I'd have to, I dunno, read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica before I could do one of his densely-packed novels any justice.

Although I've luvved everything I've read of Wright, including novels, short stories, and his blog, I've discovered over time that he and I have almost exactly the opposite opinions on movies.  I thought Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban was the only watchable Harry Potter movie.  Wright couldn't stand it.  I thrilled to Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong, which I highly approve because it makes the skinny guy with the big nose look studly (see any of my profile pictures for the reason I approve of that).  Wright, again, couldn't stand it.  He loved Lady in the Water.  I, to say the least, didn't.  Of course, Wright is a genius, so I expect him to have unusual opinions and unique reasons for holding those opinions.  On the other hand, my opinions of movies, if anyone has noticed, tend to go pretty much with the mainstream.  That's not by design.

So I was only mildly surprised to discover that Wright is highly approving of The Last Airbender.  He has a fine review up, which I highly recommend both because Wright wrote it and because it gives a second opinion.  At least one paragraph in there might possibly be in response to something I said in my own review.

P.S.  Also, he points out one thing that's worth saying, and writes a great defense of it:  all the accusations of racism against M. Night Shyamalan are dumb.  In fact, with its dizzyingly diverse cast, all the racebaiters chose exactly the wrong movie to racebait.

P.P.S.  And the racebaiters have skin color myopia.  Yes, the Water Tribe people in the cartoon have dark skin, but they also have bright blue eyes--a combination not usually found in the real world--and they're tall and thin like anime characters, whereas real-world Eskimos are generally short and stocky because it's a better stature for conserving body heat.  And, broadly speaking, people living near the poles have lighter skin while people living near the equator have darker skin because lighter skin absorbs Vitamin D more quickly and darker skin prevents sunburn, so making the Water Tribers white and the Fire Nation people dark in the movie actually makes sense, perhaps even better sense than what was in the cartoon, since Eskimos have somewhat dark skin because their ancestors emigrated from a warmer clime, whereas in the world of the cartoon, the national divisions were set down by God or the cosmos or something and nobody emigrates.  The claims of racism are so indescribably stupid that I've despaired of describing how stupid they are every time I've tried.

Monday, July 19, 2010

July Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy Blog Tour

Starlighter (Dragons of Starlight)

Hello.  Your resident dragon here, Snuffles T. Dragon, esq., to tell you about the new novel Starlighter, first in the Dragons of Starlight Series, by Bryan Davis.

In this novel, we have a couple of teenagers, Jason and Koren, who live in a world where dragons kidnap people and take them to another planet to serve as their slaves.

I cannot think of a better subject for a good YA novel.  I am, of course, much in favor of humans serving as the slaves of dragons.  Why, I myself live for the better part of the year in a cave in the high Himalayas where I lounge about on piles of gold and precious jewels while fourteen thinly clad yet luxuriously adorned virgins rub oil into my scales, pick parasites out of my teeth, make me cherries jubilee, darn my socks...oh, it's the life, I can tell you.  Human enslavement is one of the finest institutions draconic civilization has ever devised.  Speaking of which, I've just expanded the cave:  The new addition includes a full kitchen and bath, and I'm currently accepting applications.

But enough about me...well, there's never enough about me, but let's try talking about this Bryan Davis chap and his novel for a change.  I figure the poor kid deserves his chance in the limelight.

In this novel, Koren is a slave on the dragon planet searching for her freedom while Jason is a swordfighter in search of his abducted brother.  No doubt, by the end of the novel Koren has seen the error of her ways and returned to her mindless but decadently pleasurable life of scale-rubbing and sock-darning.  And as for Jason, I have one word--barbecue, baby!  Okay, that's two words.  Ooh, I do believe I'm drooling.

Bwahaha!!  I love the smell of roast knight in the morning!*

Ah, where were we?  Yes, about this Bryan Davis chap, if you want a good word on him, you might check out the RBC Library Blog, which has a good little overview.  It mentions, for example, that Koren and Jason have to destroy a black egg signaling the end of the world.  That, of course, would be the Egg of Lilith, which appears in the Geofront when the crucified Lilith absorbs the embryonic Adam while the completed Eva series forms the Tree of Life configuration with the Lances of Longinus in order to produce an anti-AT Field.  This is known as Third Impact.  Or something.  Actually, I don't know what the black egg in Starlighter is about, so go read the book. 

FantasyThyme briefly discusses some themes in the novel, and also mentions a personal encounter with Bryan Davis.

Donita K. Paul, not entirely unfamiliar with dragons herself (in fact, I think some years ago she was temporarily enslaved to my friend Phil), also gets personal with a convention anecdote worth reading.

Well, that's all this dragon has time for.  I have scales to get rubbed and manga to get read.  You can check out the author's website and blog.

Meet my former and future slaves:

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Michael D. O'Brien on Twilight

Twilight (The Twilight Saga)
I am officially sick and tired of hearing about Twilight.  I saw the first film and found it wretched.  I read the first novel at Lucky's behest and found it, if anything, even more wretched.  Somebody, somebody somewhere please, write a novel about a tortured beefcake who's actually interesting so the teen girls can go gaga over that instead and we won't have to keep hearing over and over again about a novel that sucks this bad.

Much as I dislike Twilight, I feel a certain duty to defend it when I see it being picked on for all the wrong reasons, such as when, for example, Michael D. O'Brien speculates wildly that the popularity of the franchise and the fact that Stephenie Meyer got the idea from a dream are evidence that the novels were actually conceived by Satan himself, as he does in his essay, "Twilight of the West."  Although an excellent writer and talented painter sometimes capable of making good points, O'Brien has a bad habit of basing his moral criticism on his emotions.  In the foreword to his new book on Harry Potter, for example, he informs us that he knows Harry Potter is evil because it causes him "spiritual nausea" and "spiritual disgust," which I can only assume are noticeably different from regular-type nausea and disgust, and because he had bad dreams while reading them.  He also claims the books give him "the sense of an oppressive presence that I had come to recognize over the years as the proximity of adverse spirits."  How does he know that?

He did the same thing all the way back in his book A Landscape with Dragons, where he promotes the idea, unique to him, that it is part of the Natural Law that all fictional reptiles are representations of Satan and must be depicted as unambiguously evil.  He defends this notion by describing a nightmare in which a dinosaur attacked him.

The problem with this is that personal experiences are just that--personal.  Even if O'Brien's dreams really have the supernatural relevance he attributes to them, they are personal revelations, not the least bit binding on anybody other than O'Brien himself.  The same goes for his "spiritual nausea" and his claim to be able to detect the presence of demons.

There are more mundane explanations for O'Brien's emotional experiences readily available.  In that same foreword on Harry Potter, he describes himself, shortly before reading the novels, in a kind of Gethsemane experience, wrestling with God and begging and pleading to be spared the horrible burden of reading a series of children's books.  After he's worked himself into such an emotional frenzy, it's no surprise that, "from the day I opened the first page and began to read, a cloud of darkness and dread descended..."  What is surprising is that, shortly after writing about wrestling with God and experiencing spiritual disgust, he can write, "I can say that I approached the series with no strong emotional bias, no irrational fear."  It certainly sounds as if he approached with a strong emotional bias, given the events he describes as leading up to the reading.

In his essay on Twilight, O'Brien relies on emotional button-mashing, vagueness, and wild speculation to convince his readers.  He also shows his habit of contradicting himself, of using different yardsticks for different authors, so that it's impossible to know what exactly he's demanding of the fantasy writers he critiques.  For example, he tells us to "remember...that when the 'good' [note the scare quotes] vampires catch a bad vampire, they rip off his head and tear his body into pieces with their hands and then burn the remains."  Of course, that's more-or-less the traditional way to deal with a vampire, so it's unclear why O'Brien finds it repulsive in Twilight specifically, since he shies away from giving a blanket condemnation to all vampire stories.  But though O'Brien apparently disapproves of gore in Twilight, this is his opinion on gore when he's dealing with stories he approves of:
Furthermore, a literary figure is not in fact a suffering person but an image in the mind.  And the dire image of a witch's death may suggest in the mind of a child that witchcraft is so absolutely a violation of their souls, of their personhood, that a dire punishment is warranted.  Even very young children realize that no one is going to make a witch dance herself to death in red-hot shoes....  [A Landscape With Dragons, p. 38]
So tearing vampires apart = bad and dancing witches to death in hot shoes = good.  Why the different yardsticks?  It's impossible to say for sure, but the sudden and unexpected reference to bodies being ripped apart looks like an attempt at an emotional yank.  He does the same thing further down when he admits that Edward Cullen's self-control arguably has some good points:  He writes, "Edward, we are led to believe, is outstandingly 'moral' [note the scare quotes], his self-denial resembling heroic chastity."  But then, instead of engaging with the story and going into the details that a real work of moral criticism would need, such as describing Edward's abusive behavior, or defining chastity and then noting that trying to develop willpower by spending lots of time around a person who incites perverse lust is a foolhardy rather than a chaste thing to do, O'Brien goes for button-mashing again:  "It is all so tender and touching until one recalls that this is a story about savage killers who have infected normal humans and brought them into their 'family' [note the scare quotes]."

O'Brien might possibly have a point there, but the point comes across only weakly because Twilight is a fantasy and the thing he's attacking is its central fantasy conceit.  Twilight can't really be said to promote savage killing any more than Jonny Quest can be said to promote child endangerment.  Vampires being real, or eleven-year-olds being heroes, are just the sort of thing you have to be willing to buy into if you're to enjoy this kind of entertainment.  Most people who read fantasy are actually eager to buy into such things.  Instead of simply recoiling in disgust (spiritual disgust, presumably), O'Brien would be better off explaining why the central fantasy conceit doesn't work--that is, why vampiric bloodlust makes a poor analogy for raging teen hormones.  If he did that instead of trying to yank his readers' emotions, he could explain why Twilight's fantasy conceit and attendant metaphor don't function the way the author intended, and why the novel in spite of its good intentions is an artistic and moral failure.

Much of O'Brien's essay consists of quotes from The SCP Journal and from Michael Jones's Monsters from the ID: The Rise of Horror in Fiction and Film.  I haven't had the chance to access either.  The quotes from both sources look dubious.  Jones speculates that vampire fiction became popular when syphilis was on the rise, and that the growth in the popularity of vampire fiction has accompanied the loss of sexual mores, which sounds like one of those inappropriate arguments from statistics in which someone claims that ice cream sales cause murder because both increase during the summer.  Worse, however, are the quotations from Steve Wohlberg's "Menace Behind Twilight" from The SCP Journal.  These quotations form the linchpin of O'Brien's own essay.  Wohlberg notes that Stephenie Meyer came up with her idea for her novels when she had a vivid dream about a hot boy, and that J. K. Rowling got her idea for Harry Potter in a flash of inspiration, and then speculates that both writers got their ideas straight from the devil, a notion O'Brien is eager to swallow:
Who was this “Edward”? Was it the author’s subconscious telling her that she was attempting to tame what cannot be tamed? Or was it an evil spirit manifesting through the image, urging her to give her readers less moralism and more blood?
In his foreword to his book on Harry Potter, O'Brien attempts to avoid blaming Rowling directly, stating, "...it is important to underline that J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, is almost certainly unaware of her work’s significance in the darkening of the times."  He's not so kind to Meyer.  He describes an interview in which Meyer states that she had a later dream about Edward Cullen, after the one that inspired her novel, in which she says, "I had gotten it wrong and he did drink blood like every other vampire...."  O'Brien jumps on this and asks,
Why did she not realize that the second dream was warning her about something? In her interviews she merely reported it without offering an assessment of what it might mean, then continued to write more of the same. Why did she respond to the first dream and not to the second? Was it because the first was extremely pleasurable and the second disturbing to the point of terror? Was it because pleasure had become her good and unhappy feelings a thing to be dismissed as bad?
Maybe.  Or maybe Meyer doesn't take dreams as seriously as O'Brien does.  I've had some involved and vivid dreams of my own, and once in my adult life I even had a nightmare, but I've never attributed any significance to it.  In this lengthy and exceptionally detailed nightmare, I was a woman, and my next-door neighbor, a postal worker, was trying to hunt me down and murder me with a kitchen knife because I had discovered that he added spice to his ennui-afflicted life by cross-dressing and dancing at an exotic night club, and in his attempt to get me, he slashed and hacked everyone else in his way.

Now, if I interpreted dreams the way O'Brien does, I would write a lengthy essay in which I would point out that the dream had the basic outline of a slasher film, which must be spiritually significant because I don't watch slashers.  I would mention that some details at the end of my dream came from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (they did!), which I was reading at the time.  To add veracity, I would be sure to explain that I don't usually have nightmares, and then I would conclude that my dream is proof that His Dark Materials, and slasher movies, and postal workers, are all demonic because they were mixed together in a dream that made me feel bad.

Of course, other explanations are available.  The dream was more vivid than my usual, true, but I was camping out at the time and I typically sleep more soundly while lying on the ground out-of-doors.  Some elements from the dream, like parts of the postal worker's dance club costume, came from a movie poster I'd glanced at earlier in the day.  And though it's true I don't watch slasher movies, I know the typical outline, which explains why I had to have a sex-change to be the protagonist, and it's typical for my dreams to play out like movies anyway.

Do I think this dream was "warning" me [note the scare quotes] about His Dark Materials?  No.  I think it was just a dream.  I am capable of evaluating Pullman's pro-child-fornication atheist screed posing as a fantasy epic without claiming any supernatural revelations, and O'Brien would probably be able to produce better, more convincing essays on fantasy if he also resisted making such claims.  The problem with his essay's conclusion is that it is speculation, open to neither proof nor rebuttal.  He insinuates that Rowling and Meyer were both inspired by the devil, and that this is evident in the suddenness of Rowling's idea and in the dream of Meyer, but this is not in fact evident at all.  I too have had story ideas from dreams, as have many writers or would-be writers, and O'Brien describes in that same foreword I've been referring to how he often has inspiration for his novels, complete with intricate details, come seemingly out of nowhere.  Does that indicate that O'Brien's own novels are demonic?  Of course not.  It only indicates that O'Brien is creative and talented.

Instead of making wild claims about other authors' contact with devils and his own heightened spiritual faculties, O'Brien would do better to examine the books he wants to criticize and critique them honestly, trying his best to use the same standards every time and avoid emotional appeals.  Moral criticism is hard work; I can't claim to be especially good at it, either, but all of us who attempt it should keep in mind that if we want to claim a book has moral failings, the burden of proof is on us to demonstrate it, and not on the author to justify his work.  By making cheap attacks, especially in wondering why Meyer doesn't heed certain dreams, O'Brien puts the burden on her, where it doesn't belong.

To end this essay, I want to refer to John Nolte of Big Hollywood, who discusses the Twilight phenomenon, specifically the movies.  I will be honest, I don't see in the novel or in the first movie what he sees.  I see more bad than good, but I do recognize that Meyer really was trying to write a chaste romance.  I respect what she attempted, though I think she missed the mark, and I question whether it's possible to do what she wanted in the context of vampire romance (it might be, but I question it).  I think Nolte can see, perhaps with vision clearer than mine, what Stephenie Meyer was actually attempting.  I mostly see the bad execution, but he sees the themes that are supposed to come out through that execution.  I will quote this contrary view at length and give Nolte the last word, which is, whether it is too generous or not, a good word:
From Disney Channel tarts to YouTube to MTV to their public school health education classes, young girls in this country are bombarded and constantly out-flanked with the toxic message that if they want to be "in" and "liberated" and "strong" they must become the useful and willing objects of sexual gratification manipulative men have always wanted them to be. Trust me, no one’s benefited more from left-wing feminism than shallow, sexist men who use, abuse, objectify and discard women like empty beer cans.

In our world of popular culture, the romance between Bella and Edward is unlike anything these young girls have ever been subjected to outside of Turner Classic Movies. Edward cherishes Bella, and he protects her, not only from physical harm but from his own appetites and desires that would strip away her dignity. His love for her is what love is supposed to be: completely selfless and understanding.

As weak as these films have been in the storytelling department, they’ve become money machines because a majority of young girls don’t want to be Lady Gaga, they don’t want to monologue about their vagina with Jane Fonda, and they simply don’t understand why the very same adults charged with protecting them use classroom time to roll Trojans on cucumbers.

Young girls confused and frustrated by the pop culture and media institutions constantly pressuring them into the counter-intuitive idea that the road to virtue is through the loss of their dignity — young girls who long to find their own Edward, a selfless, strong and tender man who will protect and cherish and love them, are told by “Twilight” that they’re not weird or alone. “Twilight” is a billion dollar film and publishing franchise because it serves a role more important than entertainment. The romance between Edward and Bella validates the better nature of millions of young souls yearning not to be lost.  [more...]

No, I Really Don't Think I Do...


I write like
Margaret Atwood

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!


This, based on panel description excerpts from a comic script I've been working on. I suspect the authors' names are chosen at random.

Clive Staples Award for Christian Speculative Fiction

A reader's-choice-style award for Christian speculative fiction is currently accepting votes. You can see the nominations at the Clive Stapes Award blog, and vote for your choice if you've read two or more of the books listed.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Movie Review: Despicable Me

Despicable Me


Totally off the cuteness charts.

Despicable Me, directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud.  Screenplay by Ken Daurio and Sergio Pablos.  Starring Steve Carell, Jason Segel, and Russell Brand.  Illumination Entertainment, 2010.  2D and 3D.  95 minutes.  Rated PG for rude humor and mild action.  Catholic News Service Rating is A-I--General Patronage.

Read other reviews here.

Let me start this out by saying I hate CGI cartoons and that stupid 3D gimmick.

Glad that's over with.  Now on to the review.  Some time ago, Hollywood started churning out comic book superhero movies by the dozens, and it was probably inevitable that, after doing that for a while, someone would have to come along and produce movies deconstructing the superhero. Such deconstruction can start out funny and clever with movies such as The Incredibles, and when dragged far enough, eventually reaches its conclusion in flat-out nihilism and ugliness, as in the film adaptation of Watchmen. After a movie like that, there's nowhere else for the whole project to go, except back to the beginning with reconstructed superheroes, or on to further crudity and pointless ugliness, as in the film adaptation of Kick-Ass.

So we shouldn't be surprised that attention is turning away from the superheroes and onto the supervillains, who are now being pulled apart in the same way.  Later on, I've no doubt we'll get something like an anti-Watchmen, which will tell us that villains are really just suffering oedipal complexes or sexual perversions and there's no such thing as evil and it's all meaningless anyway.  But in the meantime, we're still in that early, bracing stage where things are fun and the movies are wholesome.  Hence, Despicable Me, a really great film that's something like a cross between A Series of Unfortunate Events and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.

Our protagonist is Gru (Steve Carell), a third-rate supervillain who in spite of his third-rateness has his own mad scientist assistant, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), and an army of presumably genetically engineered minions, who look something like yellow cheesepuffs wearing goggles.  Down on his luck, Gru is unable to land a loan from the Bank of Evil to fund his next criminal act, the one he's sure will be the ultimate heist.  Pressured by the bank and pestered by a young rival named Vector (Jason Segel), Gru needs to put his plan into action quickly, and for unlikely reasons, his plan requires him to adopt three young orphans from Miss Hattie's Home for Girls.  Although he at first treats the girls in the expected impatient and intolerant comedic bad guy manner, it is not long--of course--before he begins to discover that he enjoys playing with the kids more than he enjoys committing acts of depravity.  At last we arrive at the greatest quandary that can beset an evildoer/adoptive father:  Will he commit the crime of the century, or will he attend the orphan girls' dance recital? 

You already know how this movie goes.  Despicable Me follows formula and does not deviate in the slightest, but that's part of what makes it great.  It doesn't just employ formula, but it gets it right.  The result is a movie with impressive emotional range for a kid flick.  It's not quite Ratatouille, but it's close.  The pace is even and quick, but surprisingly less frantic than some other non-Pixar CGI fare.  To ensure that there's plenty of screwball humor, Despicable Me consistently falls back on the Three Stooges-like antics of the aforementioned cheesepuff minions, who speak in high-speed gibberish and generally interact by punching each other.  Entirely gratuitous scenes feature them wreaking havoc in a grocery store or photocopying their backsides, and during the end credits, they hold a contest to see how far they can stick out of the 3D screen.  But the minion-centered scenes only appear from time to time to keep the pace from flagging, and they never last long enough to make the minions obnoxious.  Most of the humor is more mild.  A couple of decent action sequences make an appearance as well, and the serious scenes in which Gru learns to be a father to the deliriously cute orphans are even effective tear-jerkers, judging from the embarrassing sobbing noises coming from the Deej, the big wuss, who was sitting next to me in the theater and damaging my enjoyment of the film.  Criminey, I hate him.

Somebody or other once said that the reason Casablanca is so good is not because it avoids cliches, but because it uses all the cliches.  The reason cliches are cliches in the first place is because they've worked so well.  Employed badly, they're ridiculous, but employed well, they're profound, or at least touching.  Although Despicable Me is certainly no Casablanca, it is a movie that employs all the cliches and employs them well.  That's not easy to accomplish, and so I must praise the filmmakers' artistic finesse.  If this movie were just a little different, I'd probably be telling you how hackneyed and predictable it is, but it has that magic touch, that special something that makes all the hackneyed elements work so well together that they become the movie's strength rather than its weakness.  Watching Despicable Me feels like curling up in a warm blanket, familiar and comforting.  Also, the minions and orphans together give it a nearly toxic level of cuteness.  Hey, I'm an anime fan.  I like near-toxic cuteness.

The film's only real weakness is the 3D gimmick.  It takes full advantage of the 3D, but that means something's lost when it plays in 2D.

Content Whatever Thingy:  Although by no means as scatalogically fixated as some films aimed at the younger crowd, Despicable Me comes with an occasional fart joke or butt joke (the "fart gun" of the preview being about as bad as it gets).  The minions' interactions are consistently rude, but not nearly as rude as, say, your average Looney Tunes or Tom and Jerry cartoon.  The supposed villainy of the protagonist is tongue-in-cheek and need be taken no more seriously than the supposed piracy in children's pirate stories.

Also, the movie contains fluffy unicorns.  I hate unicorns.  You have no idea just how much I hate unicorns right now.  Especially fluffy ones.  Curse you, Frederick, you burned my cabbage!!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Maintenance Day; Real Content Coming Soon; No, Really

I stole the computer from Snuffles so he wasn't able to post today. You might be able to see that I'm continuing to modify the site. In addition to the new layout and Twitter feed, I've put up a new title graphic and replaced the comment system. I've also made some alterations to the FeedBurner feed and cleaned up some of the redundancies in the "please notice me" buttons at the bottom of each post.

In the past, we used to have the commenting system HaloScan, which was simple and elegant, and apparently also had a killer spam filter, because it never gave me problems. The people making HaloScan went out of business, and so we were forced to return to Blogger's default commenting system. We also lost all the HaloScan comments, except for a backup file I have no way of importing.

Comments dropped almost to zero at that point, and I was having some frustrations, especially in the form of pr4wn bots, which forced me to crank up the security, making it more difficult for everyone else to comment.

After a little kicking around, I decided to add Disqus, the new commenting system you'll see load if you click the "Comments" link at the bottom of this post. It has a spam filter and it appears to be a rather powerful system, though I'm not entirely pleased with it, mostly because it requires your browser to accept cookies and takes a little time to load, which isn't good on an old computer like mine. I think I've managed to get it so it doesn't refresh the page every time you comment, however, so new comments should appear in the thread instantly, unless I did something wrong or misunderstood what I was doing.

Disqus is bewildering at first because it lets you log in four different ways, using your Twitter, Facebook, Disqus, or OpenID accounts. OpenID, by the way, includes such things as your Blogger or Google account, if you have one. Disqus also integrates with and can cross-post comments on some of those useless but popular services like Twitter and so forth, which is kind of cool, I guess, though I still don't understand the popularity of Twitter. Does anyone really give a frick what I'm doing right now? Why would I waste time and money typing that into my cell phone?

So, since you've all been so quiet lately (and no surprise there, since I've sort of, you know, lost all your old comments), please use the new Disqus system and tell me what you think of it. If you all hate its guts, it would be a lot easier to remove it now than later. And, at least theoretically, if I do remove it, all comments in Disqus should appear in the default Blogger commenting system.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Gratuitous Filler Between Real Posts: Borrowed Awesome Stuff

Snuffles, Frederick, and Phenny (the old gang) are visiting right now, and Snuffles was supposed to write a movie review today, but when I got home I found him sacked out on the couch in the rectory, eating Oreos and reading shoujo manga.  Also, Lucky is supposed to return to writing her weekly Monday news column, but nobody remembered to put her bowl next to the computer and leave it on.  I'll kick Snuffles's tail and get him to write that review in the near future.  Meanwhile, it so happens I recently came home from another movie, so we might have a couple of reviews coming down the pipe.

In the meanwhile, I have shamelessly stolen from John C. Wright's blog the following video that confirms me in my love of India, and convinces me that I chose rightly when deciding to place my current project, which may be in permanent "in-progress" status, in someplace that looks almost but not entirely like India.  Anyway, here it is, a music video obviously inspired by Desperado, yet somehow both cooler and dumber than Desperado, something I wouldn't have thought possible (I'll give both the sensitive and the huffy readers a cheesecake warning):


Wright has an interpretation of the video, reminiscent of something by C. S. Lewis, that's worth reading.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Catholic Writers Guild Holds Its Annual Writers' Conference August 4-6



The second annual Catholic Writers’ Conference LIVE will be held August 4-6, 2010, at the Scanticon Hotel Valley Forge in King of Prussia, PA.  Sponsored by the Catholic Writers Guild and the Catholic Marketing Network (CMN), and held in conjunction with CMN’s annual retailer trade show, the Catholic Writers Conference LIVE provides Catholic authors with a prime opportunity to meet and share their faith with editors, publishers, fellow writers, and bookstore owners from across the globe.

This year's conference will feature presentations on such topics as market tips and time management for busy writers, poetry, creating evil characters, working with an editor, creating winning proposals, journaling and much more.  Speakers include Catholic publishing representatives Claudia Volkman--general manager of Circle Press, Regina Doman--acquisitions editor for Sophia Institute Press, and Tom Wehner--managing editor of the National Catholic Register, all of whom will also hear pitches from writers.

Among the other speakers are Mark Shea (Mother of the Son), Michelle Buckman (My Beautiful Disaster), Donna-Marie Cooper-O’Boyle (Mother Teresa and Me), Susie Lloyd (Please Don’t Drink the Holy Water), and Publicist Lisa Wheeler from the Maximus Group.

“Attending this conference has been the best thing I have done for myself professionally,” Carol Bannon, author of the children’s book Handshake from Heaven, said of the 2009 conference. Her fellow writer Melanie Cameron agreed, saying she left the last conference re-energized.  “I recommend [this] conference as a resource for any author (or wannabe) at any stage.  You will walk away empowered!”

The Catholic Writers Guild, a religious non-profit organization, sponsors both this live conference in August and an online conference in February to further its mission of promoting Catholic literature.  “Our conferences are totally focused on encouraging faithful Catholics to share genuine Catholic culture and faith in their writing no matter what genre,” says CWG President Ann Margaret Lewis.  “These events are integral to our mission of ‘creating a rebirth of Catholic arts and letters.”

Registration costs $85 for CWG members, $95 for non-members and $42 for students.  There's also a discounted combined membership.  To register or for more information, go to http://www.catholicwritersconference.com.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Upcoming Movie: Despicable Me



Snuffles here. It was movie night at The Sci Fi Catholic. I voted for Predators, but the Deej managed to win the wrestling match, so we saw this instead. Sigh.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Gratuitous Violence: Winners and Losers in The Sci Fi Catholic's Web Battles!

Three times now, Lucky, Snuffles, and I have argued and debated vehemently over battles that could decide the very fate of the universe. Three times now, we have turned the future of humanity over to our readers for a vote. Three times now, I have forgotten to post the results.

But that ends today.

Fear, mortals, as these titans, these heroes of old, these men of renown who, like the Nephilim who keep showing up in campy Christian sf novels, sometimes with laser eyes (because everyone likes Nephilim with laser eyes), crush and smash one another in heroic, manly bloodshed after the fashion of the paladins of Charlemagne! Especially Bradamante, the girl paladin. Everybody likes a girl paladin. Rogero so totally didn't deserve her.

Where was I? Yes--we have RESULTS from our THREE EPIC BATTLES. The polls are now closed and you, the readers, have decided who would live and who would die. I hope you feel good about yourselves, you cold-hearted scum.

(If you missed the battles, click the titles to see the epics unfold!)


SKYNET  (48%, 15 votes)

checkmates*

THE MASTER CONTROL PROGRAM (13%, 4 votes)

and

WOPR (39%, 12 votes)


THE SDF-1 MACROSS (59%, 34 votes)

missile-massacres**

THE BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (22%, 13 votes)

and

THE YAMATO AND ANDROMEDA ASCENDANT (19%, 11 votes)

 
AIRBENDER AANG (70%, 14 votes)
 
bends***
 
JAKE SULLY (5%, 1 vote)
 
and
 
THE EVIL IMPERIAL-CORPORATE CONGLOMERATE (20%, 4 votes)
 
and
 
[no image]
ALL MANGLED AND KILLED (5%, 1 vote)
 
*Not "terminates."
**What?!?  That's a steaming pile of felgekarb!
***No objections!!