Friday, September 30, 2011

Wasabi and Broccoli? That Sounds Like . . .

Read my lips, no more wasabi. According to an article posted at io9, wasabi added to broccoli can help prevent cancer. That would be great without the broccoli. Actually, this isn't the sort of thing I would normally post here if it weren't for this picture, more-or-less unrelated to the article it accompanies, that I blatantly stole.


Oh, Sriracha hot chili sauce. You've gotten me through more of my own unpalatable home-cooked meals than I care to admit.

New Twitter Widget

Formerly, in the right sidebar under all the please-notice-me buttons was a Twitter widget showing my tweets. Since most of those tweets were these blog posts, I didn't see much point in that, so I've replaced the old Twitter widget with a new one aggregating tweets on science fiction and fantasy. Enjoy.

Also, if anybody happens to be having display issues or problems with the nigh-unmanageable number of plugins or widgets or whatnot now associated with this blog, let me know. Particularly, let me know if the new subscription button in the upper right does anything wacky.

Superhero Nation

A reader sends this in, and I happen to have missed it before: Superhero Nation, dedicated to giving advice on writing superhero stories.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Narcissistic Update 3

I just finished the last words of the rough draft of chapter 2 of Rag & Muffin. Again, though it undoubtedly has problems I won't be able to see until later, I think it reads rather well. Also, it somehow seems to have more blood and guts than the comic version. If I can keep up this pace, I should have a complete rough in the near future. It helps that I've already done almost all the legwork and am now down simply to the composition.

Random Excerpts

The following are random, recently penned sentences from the rough draft of Rag & Muffin, my work in progress:

Since Swaggart had once observed this effeminate dandy of a pediatrician single-handedly taking down six armed Shijain rajputs--bare-handed--he decided it was best to invite him along, and to be damn polite about it, too.

It was a little girl, petite and short, with large, luminous green eyes and soft brown hair braided and twined at the back of her head around a pair of what at first appeared to be hair sticks, but which on a second glance proved to be stilettos.

Rags arched her back, slid forward on her knees, ducked the Taser, and then promptly rolled into a handstand and, with both legs, kicked Sanders in the stomach, sending him flying across the room.

Nicky reached the end of the alley, leapt an open sewer ditch, crashed noisily into a row of parked motorcycles, and then almost veered into a zebu cow sleeping in the middle of the street.

The feel of a windowpane shattering against his skull woke Nicky back up.

The Opening Hook

Some writers and people who give advice to writers make a big deal out of a book's opening sentence, and of course it's true that a great opening helps pull a reader into a story. But of all the books I've read, I can remember the opening sentence of very few of them. Neuromancer has probably the only one I can quote from memory, at least that I can think of in the thirty seconds I'm using to write this post: "The sky was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." That's a pretty good opening line.

Over at Speculative Faith is a list of openings lines from unpublished novels, and they're inviting readers to choose which ones they like best, and to offer critiques.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Nothing . . .

. . . is more creepy to me than the critics who think the dystopian enforcers who throw a man in jail for having a third child on Terra Nova are the good guys.

See here and here.

I'm guessing these critics missed the part where the enforcers enter an apartment without a warrant and brutally trash the place looking for a child in order to penalize the child's parents, or the part where the child in question is precious and adorable and feeds leaves to a Brachiosaur.  The enforcers obviously didn't have the sympathy of the show's creators, and it chills me that they could get the sympathy of any of the viewers.

SF Signal's Visual Guide to NPR's top 100 SF Books

SF Signal has created one dang cool flowchart to guide you through NPR's list of the top 100 science fiction books.  It is a great pleasure to look at and meander through, and I rather hope they come out with a poster version I can put on my wall.

See the chart here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Whoa, Sweet! Brain Scanners Can Play Movies from Your Mind

Now they have machines that can, in blurry and vague fashion, reconstruct the movies you're watching from the activity of your brain, according to a story I found in Arab News.com.

It sounds like science fiction: While volunteers watched movie clips, a scanner watched their brains. And from their brain activity, a computer made rough reconstructions of what they viewed.
Scientists reported that result Thursday and speculated such an approach might be able to reveal dreams and hallucinations someday.

In the future, it might help stroke victims or others who have no other way to communicate, said Jack Gallant, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-author of the paper. [more . . .]

This is good.  If they can play movies from the content of your brain, then when a million-year-old psychic spaceship containing the dead bodies of giant grasshoppers from Mars is found in the London underground and a guy with a diamond drill turns crazy and psychic from trying to open it, they'll be able to reconstruct the giant grasshoppers' evil Fascist agenda by plugging the guy's head into a TV set.

New News Ticker Is a Keeper

Or at least I think so.  See it up above there in all its glory.  It should aggregate stories related to science fiction.  I tried to make it do fantasy, too, but then it kept churning out articles on Fantasy Football.

Really Fast Neutrinos

As a follow-up of sorts to our review of the time travel adventure show Terra Nova, I direct you to a radio program on the subject of the experiment of which you may have already heard, in which researchers at CERN in Geneva recorded what may be faster-than-light neutrinos.  More science will have to happen before faster-than-light particles are accepted as real, of course, but if neutrinos really can exceed light speed, that will be a big deal.

The program speculates that it may mean some form of time travel is possible.  Here's the link.

However this plays out, and whatever future research shows, it will make for some good sci-fi phlebotinum, I've no doubt.  Just say "neutrino," and throw some other big words around with paraphrased excerpts from science magazines, and . . . presto!  Explanation for an FTL drive!

Monday, September 26, 2011

TV Review: 'Terra Nova' Pilot, 'Genesis'


Terra Nova:  Genesis.  Directed by Alex Graves.  Written by Allan Loeb, Kelly Marcel, and Craig Silverstein.  Amblin Entertainment and Chernin Entertainment.  Fox Broadcasting Network (2011).  2 hours.

Experience teaches me that pilots for new sf shows can be weak, so I'm willing to give Terra Nova another shot and tune in Monday for the next episode, but I'm not impressed by what I've seen so far.  All the good stuff is in the first fifteen minutes; in fact, the first fifteen minutes may be some of the best minutes I've seen on TV, but after that the story meanders and we get nothing but stock situations.  The writers made a bad move selecting the subplot they did and using it to fill almost the entirety of the two-hour pilot when it should have been used in a one-hour filler episode further down the line.

I'm having to go to Internet sources to remind myself of the characters' names, and that is not a good sign.  Our main characters are a family of five living in the year 2149, which suffers from the standard polution-overpopulation mix predicted by our so-far inaccurate doomsday prophets:  we have ex-cop Jim Shannon (Sharon O'Mara), his wife, a skilled physician  (Shelley Conn), and his three kids, one of whom is illegal because of a two-child law.  When their illegal cute little girl is discovered, Shannon goes to prison for a couple of years and faces the possibility of permanent separation from his wife and two oldest kids when they're selected to join other colonists in a trip through a convenient space-time rift and live in the Cretaceous.  That leads to the best sequence in the whole two hours:  Shannon breaks out of prison and smuggles his youngest daughter into the past to join the rest of the family.  The sets depicting the scummy, dirty future world are well-crafted, and the CGI flybys through the Blade Runner-like future city look great, but once the show switches to the primordial past, everything goes downhill.

Once in the past, we learn that the colony, Terra Nova (filmed with a mix of Australian forest and mediocre CGI) is ill-prepared to deal with its environment:  they've surrounded their settlement with a wooden fence that a lot of even rather large creatures could easily squeeze through, and they defend themselves almost entirely with small arms.  Remember Jurassic Park and how everything went wrong in spite of all the security? Terra Nova has way less security than that.

In spite of being an escaped criminal from a maximum security prison (why was he in maximum security for having an extra kid?), Shannon gets a wrist-slap from the coolest character in the show, General Taylor, played by the coolest actor from Avatar (Stephen Lang).  Shannon's wife becomes the local doctor, who uses giant leeches.  We aren't told why frontier medicine from 2149 has degenerated back to leeching, but it has.  Shannon, after a brief stint as a farmer, gets a gun and becomes a cop again even though he recently broke out of a high-security prison.  His son goes predictably emo and tells dad he hates him for no reason in particular.  His daughter meets a hunk who gets approximately 45 seconds of screen time.  And in the second-best sequence in the whole two hours, his illegal and adorable daughter Zoe (Alana Mansour) feeds a Brachiosaurus.  Aww.

We get some hints of goings-on that indicate paradise is not all it's cracked up to be.  Some rebels have formed their own colony with the goal of bringing down Terra Nova, apparently with the help of some backers from the future.  The rebels have a curious above-average tendency to get et by dinosaurs, and they do so in the show's third- and fourth-best sequences.  Somebody or something is also lurking out in the jungle and doing something or other high-techish.

The show goofs when it decides to focus most of its attention on teenagers sneaking out, getting drunk, and getting attacked by dinos.  That leads to some decent dinosaur-fighting and some decent human-munching, but it's a stupid subplot that places most of the attention on the show's weakest actors.  It also means almost everything in the episode is driven by its characters' boneheaded choices.

On the plus side, the thematic focus is on family.  It's all about sticking together, learning to live with one another even in the midst of difficult situations, and about telling Big Brother we'll have as many kids as we want, dammit.  Also, little Zoe brings the cute child mascot back to sci-fi television, and I had thought, after Boxey mysteriously disappeared from the lust-ridden remake of Battlestar Galactica, that the child mascot was gone for good.  Everyone who's read the Dinotopiapicture books knows that cute little girls are supposed to feed dinosaurs, and fortunately, someone making Terra Nova has apparently read the Dinotopiapicture books.  On the whole, I can't complain, and I see chances of improvement since there are hints of subterfuge and hidden agendas and conflicts to come in later episodes.  I just hope the writers can do family-themed stories without falling back on the drunken-teenagers-get-chased-by-monster shtick they relied on in the pilot.

Content:  Fake-looking dinosaurs get the munchies.  People get sliced and chewed on-screen.  Surprising amount of blood for what's been billed as a family show.  Not really excessive, but some parents may be uncomfortable allowing small children to watch it.  The small children themselves, on the other hand, will probably love it.

'Terra Nova' Up-to-the-Minute Update 9: 110 min

The machine gun vs. dinosaur fighting isn't too bad, but it's still not quite as good as the similar scene in My Science Project.  The plot is entirely stupidity-driven; everything happens because somebody is an idiot.

'Terra Nova' Up-to-the-Minute Update 8: 95 min

That was much too short a segment.  Stuck in a disabled land vehicle and shooting submachine guns at killer dinosaurs is good.

'Terra Nova' Up-to-the-Minute Update 7: 90 min

Stupid teenagers played by thirty-something actors brew moonshine, get attacked by dinosaurs.  Someone gets et.  Script is sluggish, situations are awkward.  All the good worldbuilding seems to have gone into the future in the early scenes, rather than in the 85 mya past that makes up the bulk of the show.

'Terra Nova' Up-to-the-Minute Update 6: 75 min

Yep, definitely increased frequency on the commercials.

Idiots from the future can't figure out how to mine.  Meteoric iron comes from a "quarry"?  CGI dinosaurs and environments look fake.  Stephen Lang stares down a dinosaur.  Doing donuts in an armored vehicle while shooting a dinosaur with a machine gun is pretty cool.

This show hovers in that strange space between super cool and hella lame.

'Terra Nova' Up-to-the-Minute Update 5: 65 min

Wait, it hasn't been that long since the last update.  I think the commercials are coming more frequently.

Trouble in paradise.  A second, evil settlement wants to destroy the first one.  Sweet.  Hey, wait, is that tough guy in charge of the colony the same guy who played the only cool character in Avatar?  Hey, yeah, it is!  That's Stephen Lang!  That guy rocks!

'Terra Nova' Up-to-the-Minute Update 4: 60 min

Everyone who travels to the past can drink nothing but buttermilk for weeks.  Girl strips down to bikini.  We Are Not Alone.

If the aliens turn out to be evildoers who will provoke the heroes into riding dinosaurs mounted with laser rifles in order to fight them, WIN.  If the aliens turn out to be underground-traveling pseudo-hippies who teach the bad humans about being kind to the environment, FAIL.

Bring back the cute little girl feeding the dinosaurs.

'Terra Nova' Up-to-the-Minute Update 3: 45 min

Teenage boy goes emo again.  "I hate you!  I wish I were never born!"  Okay, he didn't say that, but close.

These high-tech physicians from the future use giant leeches.  Leeches?  Is that supposed to be funny?  Or believable?

Awkward expository sequence explains why colonizing the past doesn't change the future.  Makes a forced and non-clever "Sound of Thunder" reference.

It's losing steam.  The first fifteen minutes are the best so far.  Bring back the cute little girl and the dinosaurs.

'Terra Nova' Up-to-the-Minute Update 2: 30 min

Escapee from high-security prison gets off with a wrist-slap (sweet!).  Teenage boy goes emo.  Adorable little girl feeds Brachiosaurus (I want a Brachiosaurus).  Idiots don't know how to build the walls around their settlement to keep the dinosaurs out.

Still enjoyable, but they really don't look prepared to deal with dinosaurs here.  The biggest weapon I've seen is a carbine, and the wall is too short and has not moat or other deterrent.  These guys are less prepared than Jurassic Park was.

So far, with the flakey polution message and the dinosaurs, it's sort of like Dinotopia with guns.

'Terra Nova' Up-to-the-Minute Update 1: 15 min

Well, the introduction kicks awesome.  We've already established that our family of husband, wife, and three kids are pretty much awesome.  Already we've broken out of a high-security prison, raged against the machine, stuck it to the Man, and traveled back in time.  My instincts say this is going to be really, really good.

'Terra Nova' Premiers Tonight

Terra Nova premiers tonight on Fox, and since I'm in one of those rare circumstances in which I have access to a television, I will against my better judgment remain up to watch it and to give it a review when all is said and done.  Right now, I'm thinking it look a little Earth 2-ish, but I'm keeping my hopes high that it will end up being more like Dino-Riders.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

New News Ticker

Our former news ticker, formerly buried in the over-stuffed right sidebar, has been acting up for a while, and recently went kaput, after which I discovered that its host, Feedzilla, apparently updated its way of doing newstickers.  Thinking maybe I'd like a tickertape under the blog title instead of a ticker stuffed in the sidebar where nobody could see it, I played around until I came up with . . . this.  This thing you see above me here.

Tell me what you think.  Personally, at the moment, I'm thinking "eyesore."  I'll play around with it and see if I can improve its appearance.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Narcissistic Update 2

I had cause earlier this week to write a short story set in the same universe at my work in progress, which I am writing under the working title of Rag & Muffin, and which features a magical girl who hunts down slave traffickers, and I enjoyed it so much that I wondered if I should try producing Rag & Muffin as a novel instead of as a comic, so as an experiment I sat down today and banged out the first chapter in prose form, which comes to 6,000 words according to the standard estimate used by editors.  If I wrote the whole of Rag & Muffin in novel format at the pace of 6,000 words a day, I'd probably have the whole first draft done in about two weeks.

However, I find myself confronted with one major problem:  the cheesy one-liners just don't work as well in a novel.  Lines like, "I have come for your salty snacks," or, "If you could buy beef around here, I'd tell you to put a steak on that," sound pretty silly in a novel, even after an outrageous action scene.  If I produced it as a novel, I would probably even have to drop my favorite cheesy one-liner, "Rag & Muffin, meet Smith & Wesson."  And the story is pretty much pointless if that line doesn't go in there.

Pizza Pi, Apple Pi, Bible Pi . . .

Well, this ain't much, but because it's my day off and I'm working hard on a manuscript and don't want to spend a lot of time on the blog even though we haven't had much in the way of real content lately, I'll post it.

I hadn't heard of this before, though it's apparently a cause for sneering or consternation in some circles.  My response on looking at it was, "Kind of interesting, but . . . meh."

Steven Dutch has an even-handed article, "Pi in the Bible?" on the subject of 1 Kings 7.23-26, which describes the Molten Sea that was part of the Temple of Solomon.  It makes the diameter of the Sea 10 cubits and the circumference 30 cubits, and somebody apparently thought it was a good idea to point out that would give an inaccurate measurement of pi as 3.  Says Dutch,

Now the Hebrews were not an especially technological society; when Solomon built his Temple he had to hire Phoenecian artisans for the really technical work. So the author of this passage may not have known the exact value of pi, or thought his readers might not be aware that specifying the diameter of a circle automatically specifies its circumference. In any case, the essential point was the impressive size of the cauldron, and its dimensions were only approximate, because the ratio of the circumference to the diameter is stated to be exactly three rather than the real value of pi . . . [more . . .]

I can tell you right now the ancient Hebrews didn't know what pi was, and neither did most of their neighbors.  In New Kingdom Egypt, the scribes had some very clever mathematical formulas to approximate the volume of round grain silos without referring to pi, which they didn't know.  It is possible to do a lot of impressive things without knowing pi.

By the way, the Hebrews didn't know the Earth was round, either.  Get over it.  All the geocentrists, who make me feel cozy and happy rather than weirded out, possibly because I grew up among people of similar reality-denying beliefs and have usually found them to be gentle, decent, hardworking folk, when they claim the Earth has to be at the center of the universe because the Bible says so, are actually basing their cosmology on Ptolemy, not scripture.  The ancient Hebrews envisioned a flat Earth with a metal dome overhead holding up a cosmic body of water.  It's right there in your Bible.  Look it up.

Of course, when I say I feel cozy around geocentrists, understand that, also, when I saw Jesus Camp, I was going "Aww" at the cute freckled kids instead of getting frightened by the horror-movie soundtrack and misplaced references to George Bush.  So maybe I'm immune to ordinary fears of religious fanaticism.  Or maybe, you know, Jesus Camp was a misleading documentary with a misplaced political statement that tried and failed to link a group of good-natured, well-mannered, and articulate but somewhat eccentric Evangelical children with an imaginary militant political movement.

Whoa, wait, Sungenis actually wrote two whole volumes on geocentrism?  Why does a subject like that take two books?

Eh, where was I?  Ah, yes.  Pi.  After introducing his subject, Dutch spends his time dismantling a creationist who goes through great contortions to make the passage give an accurate number for pi.  I don't know why Dutch wastes his time doing that, or for that matter why the creationist in question wasted his time, but there it is.

Wow, looking around the Internet, I see that a shocking amount of digital ink has been spilled on this subject. Ah, well, this should make a nice additional annotation in the ol' study Bible . . .

Friday, September 23, 2011

Does Anyone Remember 'Freedom'?

John C. Wright's latest post jarred something in my memory that has almost nothing to do with what he was writing about: the extremely short-lived television series Freedom that appeared on UPN in 2000 and then disappeared just as quickly. As I recall, circumstances never enabled me to watch a full episode all the way through, but I do remember the show having outrageous wire-fu fight scenes of the kind I like, as well as crassness of the kind I don't. Essentially, the show was about freedom fighters trying to topple a military regime that had taken over the United States, and the freedom fighters, though few in number, had the advantage of being able to do chop-sockey martial arts stunts.

After some strenuous Internet research that took me all of five minutes, I discovered the show has gotten a thorough writeup at a site previously unknown to me, Television Obscurities. According to that article, only twelve episodes of Freedom were ever made, and only seven aired in the U.S., though it enjoyed complete broadcasting in Brazil and some other countries.

Does anyone here remember Freedom? I only remember bad acting, lots of fighting, and a gratuitous scene of jello-wrestling that guaranteed I wouldn't be tuning in again next week. If anyone remembers this, how was it? It apparently has some cult followers.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

New Parody Trailer for 'The Muppets'

Who can fail to rejoice at the release of a new Muppets movie?  The Muppets is set to come out around Thanksgiving, and the latest trailer, as reported by Tor.com, is a parody of the trailer of the upcoming remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo, because American filmmakers for some reason have to remake popular foreign films instead of just, um, watching the foreign films or something.  What's up with that?

Here's the parody trailer:



And here, in case you don't know what it's making fun of, is the original:

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

September Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy Blog Tour


I'm fresh back from an archaeology session and discover that because I had the computer with me, Lucky couldn't do her Monday news post.  Oops.

But that's okay because it's the week of the monthly blog tour, and I'm just in time to catch the tail end of it, which means I can post one what everyone else has written without going through the trouble of creating any content myself. Yay, me.

This month, the book of choice is The Monster in the Hollows, book 3 of the Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson. You can see the book's website and Peterson's website.

Now let's tour the tour:

Joan's book blog has a lengthy summary of the plot (including spoilers, so beware), though it appears to be written for those who've read the prequels because I didn't understand what she was on about. She also adds an allegorical interpretation of the plot. A briefer summary for the newcomer can be found at Spoiled for the Ordinary.

Donita K. Paul explains her mixed feelings about the fact that the Wingfeather Trilogy has gone all Wheel of Timeand turned into the Wingfeather Saga with a planned, previously unplanned fourth book forthcoming.

Realm of Hearts gives us a biography of the author.

Shannon McDermott gives an interesting meditation on the subject of making characters suffer. The general wisdom, of course, is that authors are supposed to torture their characters for the sake of plot, but as McDermott points out, if this is overdone, it can turn into melodrama or turn characters into Shinji-like whiners. McDermott praises Peterson for making his characters suffer without making them annoying.

Yellow House News explains why it's okay for adults to like children's literature.

Pen and Parchment gives a gushing review and also shows some of the humorous illustrations from the series.

The tour:

Gillian Adams, Red Bissell, Jennifer Bogart , Thomas Clayton Booher, Beckie Burnham, CSFF Blog Tour, D. G. D. Davidson, Cynthia Dyer, Amber French, Nikole Hahn, Ryan Heart, Timothy Hicks, Jason Joyner, Julie, Carol Keen, Shannon McDermott, Rebecca LuElla Miller, Mirriam Neal, Eve Nielsen, Joan Nienhuis, Donita K. Paul, Sarah Sawyer, Chawna Schroeder, Tammy Shelnut, Kathleen Smith, Donna Swanson, Rachel Starr Thomson, Robert Treskillard, Fred Warren, Phyllis Wheeler, Nicole White, and Rachel Wyant

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Catholic Flash Fiction

Just discovered: Fr. Jim Tucker's Catholic Flash Fiction website. It is apparently brand new (I see one story so far), but I have word from its host that it's up and running and will have not only Fr. Tucker's own work but work from other writers as well, so y'all can get in on the ground floor. The one story currently up, "Ego te Absolvo," isn't too shabby; it has one of those little shocker conclusions that usually work best on flash fiction.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Mind Meld at SF Signal: How to Create Drama for Posthumans

I personally prefer my characters mortal, and for that reason I missed much of the joy of reading superhero comics as a kid; as a small boy, I simply didn't want to read about heroes who either couldn't die or couldn't stay dead (that's a little ironic, considering my religion, but what can I say? I'm still of the opinion that, in fiction, most resurrections are cop-outs: I just don't believe that Nausicaa can be resurrected by giant millipedes or that Neo can be resurrected by nothing in particular).

Over at SF Signal, they are discussing a slightly different problem: how to create drama in a far-future universe where the problems of death or scarcity have been licked. Now, I personally don't believe these are problems that will ever get licked, and I'm fond of the infinite razorblade parody of the technological singularity, but supercivilizations full of decadent immortals are so common in far-future sf, the problem has to be dealt with. Several authors have weighed in on the question:

Post-Scarcity and Post-Singularity, Part 1
Post-Scarcity and Post-Singularity, Part 2

John C. Wright, who it's obvious by now I admire, has a particularly neat answer to the question, which he makes in reference to his Golden AgeTrilogy: a post-scarcity society is simply impossible.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Planet with Two Suns Discovered

Via Mega Bionic Frog comes the news reported in Mashable that scientists have discovered a planet with two suns. However, it is not a desert planet, but a gas giant.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

When the Great Old One Wants a Great Cold One . . .

. . . he reaches for Brewthulhu.

Brewthulhu is less filling, so you still have plenty of room for all the slavering, terrified sailors driven mad by the horror of your rising. Brewthulhu: it's the beer preferred by most eldritch abominations. At the end of a long, hard day of breaking men's minds, kick back on the beach in front of your non-Euclidean condo with a bottle of Brewthulhu.

Brewthulhu: so good, it might drive you crazy.


Are you devoted to good beer? I mean, are you so devoted you make a cult out of it? Now you can show your devotion to the world without any lurid sacrifices or terrifying rituals that might lead the police into the swamp to discover your secrets. At the Sci Fi Catholic online store, you can purchase the "OLD ONE WITH A COLD ONE" tee-shirt featuring a design by Amber Fabian.

Monday, September 12, 2011

News from the Fish Bowl

It's Lucky again, and it's Monday, and that means it's time for my weekly news workout! After a sore pair of fins and a really soggy keyboard, you'll be nice and updated on your news!

Ur Kitteh Iz Glowy

As reported by io9, mad scientists have successfully made a glow-in-the-dark cat by engineering it to express a gene normally found in jellyfish.

But GFP isn't the only extra-species gene this cat is carrying — it's also packing a gene called TRIMCyp, originally found in monkeys. By giving the gene to the cats, the researchers hope to shed light on how they might combat diseases like HIV/AIDS — not just in felines, but in humans, too. [more . . .]

I like the idea of glowy kittehs because it will be much harder for them to sneak up at me. That one cat is always dipping her paw in my bowl and I have to retreat into my little castle until she goes away.

The Space Pen is a Myth

Also from io9, but worth repeating: that thing you've heard about NASA spending millions to create a pen that writes in space while the Soviets used pencils isn't true.

More Exoplanets!

Dynamics of Cats . . . um . . . reports on the Extreme Solar Systems II conference. Many newly discovered planets are in the "habitable zone," and some have only 1.25 times the radius of Earth.

More Mad Science: Spider Silk Skin

According to Archana Ramanujam and Svebor Kranjc with Reuters, artist Jalila Essaïdi and cell biologist Abdoelwaheb El Ghalbzouri have blended human skin with spider silk to produce a material that can stop bullets. This may lead to improved grafts for burn patients. It may also lead to bullet-proof superheroes. It may also lead to creepy things like this:

The special skin will soon become part of Belgian art collector Geert Verbeke's unusual portfolio: he plans to graft part of the artist's creation into his arm later this year.

"It connects nature, science and art. If I put the art that Jalila has made on my arm, then I will always have it with me," said Verbeke, who has a particular interest in marrying arts and life sciences. [more . . .]

After this, he will begin calling himself Verbekespider, his body will start falling apart, he will find he can excrete spider silk, and he will try to force his girlfriend into a teleporter device that will blend them together . . . in one body . . . more human than he could ever hope to be.

Robotic Probes Sent to Moon

Well, I'll be, we do have a space program. This is also Reuters, by Irene Klotz. Launched on Saturday, a Delta 2 rocket is carrying the NASA Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL), which will reach the moon at the end of the year with the purpose of mapping the moon's gravity to determine the makeup of its core and whether moon rocks are ALIVE!!!

Ukrainian Sci-Fi Conference!

According to National Radio Company of Ukraine, a really big sci-fi convention is happening in Kharkiv from September 15 to 18. Anybody reading this in that area by any chance?

Fall Television

The Fall TV lineup is outlinde at SF Signal. Most of it, of course, is trash, but we have an eye on Terra Nova. It appears to involve dinosaurs and guns, and that can't be too bad.  However, it looks slightly too much like Earth 2, and we all remember how that turned out.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Today . . .

Today of course is the anniversary of 9/11.  It is also Sunday.  The Gospel reading from today's Mass is on the necessity of forgiveness.  That is all.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Notes from the Margins of an Obsessive-Compulsive Annotator's Bible

Even though I have owned it since I was in graduate school, I only just now--or just yesterday, rather--finally finshed reading through my HarperCollins Study Bible, a project that took just shy of two years. I have it in the one of the limited leatherbound copies of the first edition: it was difficult to find it in leather, but I managed. No self-respecting hidebound, Bible-thumping Fundamentalist will be seen in public with a hardback Bible, and only sandle-wearing, pipe-smoking, long-haired ivory tower liberal academics use paperbacks. So make mine leather.

There is now a revised and updated edition of the HarperCollins Study Bible with even more material, including the concordance the first edition so badly needs, but I have hesitated in getting one because every review I read tells me they packed more into the new edition by shrinking the font to an uncomfortable size and leaving no space in the margins for my own copious annotations, approximately half of which involve me using a red pen to correct the NRSV's "inclusive" language, inclusive language being that which excludes the thought processes, worldview, and manners of speaking of ancient Jews. Inclusive language also changes "brother" to "comrade" in the New Testament, and you have to wonder who in the world thought that was a good idea. The Bible was not written in politically correct twenty-first century English, nor was it written by commies. Get used to it, comrade. If the Authorized King James Version was good enough for St. Paul, it's good enough for me!

Where was I? What I'm saying is, a good study Bible needs margins. Lots of margins. It needs to be one of those large ones with plenty of space in the margins. Otherwise, what's the point? Sure, they've got all their notes in there, but without margins, where are my notes going to go? And don't tell me they can go on the blank "notes" pages in the back. Nobody uses those. Those are just there so none of the important pages get ripped away when the colored maps in the back inevitably fall out. There is nothing more disheartening than watching a collection of colored maps slide to the floor with the last page of Revelation stuck to them.

The HarperCollins is, or so its publishers claim, the preferred Bible of academic classrooms, and that is the main reason I have it in the first place, because once upon a time I was in an academic classroom and all the other academics, each of whom wore sandles, smoked a pipe, and had suspiciously long hair, laughed at my Nelson Study Bible with the NKJV translation. The other main reason is because the HarperCollins is the only study Bible I have ever found that is both scholarly and attractive. In general, I have found that study Bibles can be roughly divided into two groups:

  1. Fundamentalist Evangelical Protestant
  2. Ugly

The Fundamentalists have turned out some of the best-looking study Bibles. Everyone who contemplates putting together a study Bible should begin by looking at the products of Zondervan. Scott Hahn apparently thought so: the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible almost exactly replicates the layout of the NIV Study Bible. Evangelicals tend to be emotionally attached to their personal study Bibles, so they want them to look nice, and so we ex-Evangelicals who convert to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy like to turn out Evangelical-looking study Bibles with Catholic or Orthodox content.

But most academic or non-Fundamentalist or ecumenical study Bibles are hard to look at and harder to read. If you want an example of a hard-to read academically minded Bible, go to your shelf and pull down the second edition of the Catholic Study Bible. I know you've never opened it before, so do so now and take a look at the layout. Note the miniscule font designed for eyestrain. Note the tiny margins. Note that the study materials are not in the form of annotations to the biblical books, as they should be, but are rather in the form of a seperate commentary in the front, which ought to be placed in another volume. Note that the NAB translation is tin-eared. Note also that the maps are falling out of the back even though you haven't opened the book before.

After I read a study Bible cover to cover, I always want a new one, and that's probably the biggest reason it took me so long to finally get around to the business of reading this one straight through from end to end: I liked it so much--even though I sometimes disliked the opinions expressed in the notes--I didn't want to want a new one. And if I switched to a new study Bible, I would be facing the daunting task of transferring several years' worth of hand-written annotations. I can put off replacing it for a while, of course, but they don't make books to last these days and I know it will fall apart eventually. I can't just have it rebound when that happens because I'll lose all my notes in the inner margins. The dissolution of my current Bible could give me an excuse to switch to the new, updated edition, but everything I've read tells me I won't like it.

One possibility is to locate another copy of the original HarperCollins Study Bible, such as I'm using now, and send it immediately to a book rebindery to be made to last. Apparently, a number of rebinderies specialize in catering to people who, like me, are unreasonably finnicky about Bible packaging. There is a whole blog dedicated to the subject of the binding of the Bible, the Bible Design Blog, which is a cool site that can tell you exactly how you should want your Bible to be spruced up. That blog links, for example, the Mechling Bookbindery, a company whose name means, in Latin, "Baby Mecha," and which offers some nice services to people like me who don't want to get mocked by the Fundamentalists when they show up at the Wednesday night ecumenical prayer meeting with a hardback. (It's really hurtful to listen to comments like, "Hey, nice cardboard, Catholic!") Mechling's "Deluxe Leather Bible Binding Package" includes an all-leather cover with leather liner and three bookmarks. That's, like, one for the Old Testament, one for the New Testament, and one for the Apocrypha (my ecumenical study Bible has an Apocrypha). Now that's what I'm talking about. The price tag sure makes me pause, though.

Ooh, I wonder if I could get both a first edition and a revised edition, and take the concordance out of the revised edition and tell the rebindery to bind it with the first edition . . . and then I'll maybe take the beautiful Oxford full-color maps that recently fell out of the back of my Catholic Study Bible and tell them to throw those in there, too . . .

No. I go too far.

On second thought, perhaps when I buy a new Bible I will get a Pitt Minion simply because I, being me, think "Pitt Minion Bible" sounds hilarious.

Of course, no matter what I buy, I am stuck with the trial of transferring my notes. Here's an example of the task I'm faced with--just multiply this by a few thousand pages (well, okay, not quite):

Four colors, like a comic book!

An acquaintance of mine from years ago, when faced with this dilemma, got a book out of it, and I'm pleased to see it can still be found: it's called Notes from the Margins of an Old Preacher's Bible, and he originally produced it for his own use so he could copy all its contents into each new Bible he got. I knew this good gentleman back when I really was a Fundamentalist and didn't just pretend to be one in order to ramble on the Internet. His book's contents are entirely of an Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and Dispensationalist flavor, but it is not without its gems of wisdom. I suppose I could try publishing a book like that, but most of the annotations I've written into my margins are copied out of other books, so it would probably violate a copyright or something.

I think the reason so many study Bibles have such tiny fonts and such narrow margins is because they are made for sandle-wearing, pipe-smoking academics who don't want to be seen in public with a huge Bible in tow. Publishers like HarperCollins don't understand that those of us who really love Bibles want them huge. Really huge. A Bible should be big enough to resonate when I thump it. HarperCollins should release a new, bigger version of the revised edition of the HarperCollins Study Bible, only with the margins and white space of the original. Also, it needs a cross-referencing system in the worst way. Maybe even a Pitt Minion cross-referencing system. I'd buy that in an instant . . . but only if it's in leather.


And make sure those pages are art-gilt, buddy.

Friday, September 9, 2011

See the Star Trek Book of Opposites

Star Trek Book of OppositesThis is just too funny.  And cute.  Go see the short review of the Star Trek Book of Opposites over at SciFiChick.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Callahan's Guide to the New DC Universe

Over at Tor.com, Tim Callahan has put together an enormous guide to the rebooted DC Comics universe.  His discussions of most of the DC titles, or at least the ones I read, sound discouraging, though it is mostly speculation based on the creators involved.

Considering the flap that went across the Internet some months ago over Wonder Woman's new look, Callahan's description of the new Wonder Woman is quite positive . . . and the illustration here is not of the much-maligned new costume with the jacket and long pants, so they must have jettisoned that and I didn't hear about it.  Or something.  I can't find anything on the web about this latest change, so I'm confused.  And then there's the controversy over the TV series, too.  Wonder Woman's costume changes are making me dizzy, and I don't even read her comics . . . help . . . .

Callahan also speaks well of Action Comics, which will feature Grant Morrison's take on Superman's early days.

As someone whose taste in comics tends to shy away from urban superheroes, the most interesting title to me may be All-Star Western, which is apparently continuing Jonah Hex, only different, now featuring bigger stories set in the past of the DCU.

Also interesting, for sheer zaniness, is Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E.  As Callahan describes it, "This is no typical superhero comic. Nor is it your average monster comic. Or action/adventure series. Or space-hopping secret agent spectacle. It’s all of those things. . . ."  So it's a typical all of those things, is it?  Well, everybody likes a genre mash-up, but the trick, of course, is to actually get something unique out of the mix, and not just a collection of cliches taken from several places.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Why Interactive Gaming Can't Make You Cry

Dr. James F. McGrath of Exploring Our Matrix gives a list of links on the subject of religion and sf. I won't steal his traffic by repeating his list here, but I will focus on one particular link: Chris at Only a Game discusses why nobody has ever shed tears over the dilemma of Mario and Peach.

The gist of the argument: you might weep at a video game cut-scene, but the gameplay itself can never be all that emotionally involving. He has two articles on the subject: "A Game Has Never Made You Cry," and "No Tears for Mario."

From the first:

This is the nub of the issue here: a story can make you cry by empathising with the protagonist (or another character), but a game (when viewed as a formal system) cannot do this. It follows that the only way that a videogame can make you cry is by using narrative tools that have nothing to do with games as formal systems whatsoever. So even though, for instance, many people report that they cried when they played Final Fantasy VII at the fateful scene (and indeed, several other cRPGs also show up in player studies as having provoked tears) the moment that actually brought the player to tears was a non-interactive cut scene. It wasn't the game (in the systems view) that made them cry – it was the story – and there never was a question as to whether stories could make you cry. [more . . .]

I find this particularly interesting because I recently in this space attempted a defense, of sorts, of Simon Rafe, who featured in an exposé from the Catholic News Agency because he wrote fiction on the Internet, including a solo role-playing game. Subsequent to the CNA article, Rafe fell victim to the indignation of the Professionally Offended on the Internet Brigade, Catholic Division, because the CNA implied that his solo role-playing game contained prurient content (whether it did or not is unclear because it's no longer online and nobody, absolutely nobody, seems to have actually read or played the thing).

The argument I heard repeatedly from the Professionally Offended was that any "erotic content" is especially problematic in a role-playing game because such a game is more interactive than, say, a novel, and therefore it's okay to tear Rafe to pieces even though we don't actually know what he wrote. Although I'm not much of a gamer, I read Lone Wolf books back in the day and have some passing familiarity with solo role-playing games, so my answer is that they are less, not more, engrossing and involving than a regular book because the reader is repeatedly pulled out of the story in order to roll dice, do simple math, or maintain lists. Chris of Only a Game appears to be thinking along the same lines of what I had thought: interactive elements (what he calls the system) give the player something to do, but do not actually serve to make the story more engrossing.  In fact, they may even distract the player from the story, the story being what actually carries the potential to get the player emotionally involved.

That, at least, gives one plausible reason why I'd rather watch someone else play a video game than play it myself. The other reason is that the other player, no matter who he is, is unlikely to die as often as I do.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Has to Be Passed On . . .

I got this one from Creative Minority Report.

Monday, September 5, 2011

News from the Fish Bowl

Hi, it's Lucky! I've been stretching my fins all day in preparation to give you the news!

Um, It's Still September

Why do holiday decorations show up earlier every year? The Muncie Free Press from Muncie, Indiana, is discussing the top halloween costumes for 2011.

How do they even know yet what the top costumes are in 2011? Maybe they just don't have anything better to do in Muncie.

Cool Dinosaur Fights

Terra Nova, another TV series adapting the basic idea of Lost World, is set to premier on Fox on September 26, so io9 takes a look at cool dinosaur fights illustrated by Niroot Puttapipat. They're okay, I guess, but I think I've seen cooler dinosaur fights. Like this:

Still the coolest dinosaur fight ever.

Are Space Elevators Disrespected?

I thought they were all the rage, but according to John DeNardo at the Kirkus Reviews, the space elevator is an under-appreciated mode of skiffy space travel. He explains the basic physics and lists some novels featuring space elevators.

Slow Sci-Fi News Day?

Yeah, it is a slow sci-fi news day.

NASA Hatin' on 'Apollo 18'

According to the International Business Times:

NASA isn't the biggest fan of the movie. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, NASA's liaison for multimedia, film and television collaborations Bert Ulrich downplayed the film.

"'Apollo 18' is not a documentary. The film is a work of fiction, and we always knew that. We were minimally involved with this picture. We never even saw a rough cut. The idea of portraying the Apollo 18 mission as authentic is simply a marketing ploy," said Ulrich. [more. . .]

Well, no duh.

Close Encounters of the Post-Modern Kind

Lastly, Jonathan Jones suggests that Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the first Post-Modern film. I'm not sure what he means.

What makes me call this film "postmodernist"? Partly it is the homely suburban world where Spielberg sets his story. American films have a long heritage of adventure. Big films before this tended to be set in big places with big characters – but Richard Dreyfuss plays a nobody who lives in nowhereseville to whom something weird happens. [more . . .]

Right. Movies before this had never been set in small towns or suburbs. Got it.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Science Fiction and Religion

Over at Grasping for the Wind, Steve Davidson, who may or may not be my evil twin (or maybe I'm his evil twin, bwahaha) has an essay entitled "Science Fiction and Religion, a Marriage NOT Made in Heaven, Nor Even the Laboratory." That title could lose at least four or five words without harm, but never mind that. Davidson's argument is that science fiction absolutely must be written by atheists, and must either ignore religion or attack it, or it is not science fiction.

He has no good arguments. He assumes that science implies materialism, apparently without realizing that materialism is a metaphysical proposition that cannot be tested empirically. It becomes clear very quickly that when Davidson says "science fiction" in his essay, he means scientistic fiction, that is, science fiction that happens to espouse the same worldview he has.

As soon as he says that Arthur C. Clarke's famous flash story, "The Star," proposes "deep philosophical questions," it's obvious something is wrong. "The Star" is mildly clever, but it is not deep: it features a Jesuit scientist afflicted with doubts and depression because he discovers the Star of Bethlehem was a nova that blew up a benevolent civilization. That's cute, but I can't imagine how anyone could mistake it for deep. "Ha! The Star of Bethlehem destroyed millions of lives! Doesn't that shake your faith, Christian?" Not really, Clarke, considering that you just made that up.

Then there's his take on Dune. I grant him that Dune really is an anti-religious story; that's how I read it, and that's how I think it makes the most sense. But again, it is not deep. "Ha! The apparent fulfillment of religious prophecy is really just the result of clever psychological manipulation by space-witches! Doesn't that shake your faith, Christian?" Not really, Herbert, considering that you just made that up.

But according to Davidson, in Dune, "The author, Frank Herbert, looked for and found the one tool that could manipulate large groups of people into doing crazy, illogical (and often stupid) things." Got that? The one thing. No large groups have done anything crazy, illogical, or stupid because of, say, communism, nor a pseudoscientific (but respected by scientists) human culling and breeding program, nor for any simple human reasons like greed or sexual desire. People never do anything stupid, crazy, or illogical for any reason except religion, got it?

Readers start making objections in the combox, of course, and Davidson's answers are revealing. Somebody points out the mass-stupidity induced by things other than religion, and Davidson answers that those are really religions too if you squint hard. Someone points out non-atheist sci-fi writers like Jules Verne (a Roman Catholic who wrote hard sf), and Davidson laughably answers, "Verne? Verne didn’t write science fiction, he wrote precursor ‘scientific romances’." Ah, that explains it: Fictions about science and romances about science are two very different things!

Tom Simon, in a fine essay you ought to read, "Superversive: The Failure of Subversion in Imaginative Literature," discusses a critic, John Grant, who insists that fantasy literature must be "subversive" or it is not really fantasy, but "commercial fantasy." After delivering this dubious definition, Grant is faced with unenviable task of dealing with The Lord of the Rings. Unable to dismiss it as "commercial fantasy" without being laughed at, he argues that it is really subversive in some way. Simon, who knows his Tolkien quite well, answers:

. . . some foolish and superficial modern people, whose sense of history extends no further back than the remote primaeval dawn of the 1950s, think Tolkien was subversive because he was loudly opposed to ‘robot-factories’ and the destruction of the English countryside. In fact, and this note runs strongly throughout his work, he regarded industrialism and pollution as subversive, the one degrading human nature, the other destroying the order and beauty of nature as a whole. This sentiment became fashionable in the 1960s, and many of those who adopted it were subversives; but their reasons were not Tolkien’s. They opposed industrial civilization because their parents favoured it; Tolkien opposed it because it destroyed the kind of life lived by all the generations of his ancestors. [more . . .]

To describe the error Grant commits in insisting that fantasy is subversive or it is not fantasy, Simon develops a delightful analogy:

At this point, Mr Grant’s bizarre classification system begins to make, not exactly sense, but at least an intelligible form of nonsense. It is as if a man were to say that he liked Soup because it is cold, thick, viscous, and not highly flavoured. Such a man could go to restaurant after restaurant, and to all his friends’ houses, and ask for Soup, and be disappointed every time. . . . When he speaks of Soup, proper Soup and not that nasty Commercial Soup, he means vichyssoise. . . . And so it is with Mr Grant and his avowed taste for fantasy. He does not really like fantasy; what he wants is subversive literature, and when he does not get it, he blames everyone but himself. [more . . .]

Davidson has a similar problem: he does not really like science fiction. He likes atheist science fiction, and when he does not get it, he calls it "scientific romance" or else he spins it until it's atheist, as he does with his curious reading of A Canticle for Leibowitz, for example. In fact, his interpretation of that book is so bizarre it prompts a humorous parody in the comments that is worth repeating even though it means a third block quote:

A reinterpretation of several well known works, using the Steve Davidson method:

Brideshead Revisited. A heart breaking tragedy, in which a free spirited intellectual is seduced by the illogical insanity of a decadent Roman Catholic Family, and eventually succumbs to their poison.

Lord of the Rings. The Fellowship strive to destroy the Ring, which represents the never ending cycle of religious control and oppression. Sauron, the All Seeing Eye, represents the tyrannical God-figure, who must be destroyed to liberate a maturing species.

The Book of the New Sun. Severian wishes to reignite the Sun (which represents the fires of rationality, burning away the dregs of religious behaviour from the Urth) and build a strictly logical future.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Innocent children are abused by a religious figure- they are brainwashed into keeping Narnia from growing out of it’s infant stage by slaying it’s foremost advocate of reason, the White Witch.

The fiction of Flannery O’Connor. A dispassionate look at the horrific effect religion has on the South.

John C. Wright, being enormously prolific and too tempted to write on the Internet when he should be finishing his next novel for me to read, has written no less than three lengthy essays in response to Davidson: "Life is Short, Manuscripts Are Long," "Faith in the Fictional War between Science Fiction and Faith," and "A Question I Never Tire of Answering." He pulls apart every claim of Davidson's and then some. Most interesting is his contrast between the aforementioned Catholic Verne, who wrote hard sf and used a cannon to send people to the moon, and atheist H. G. Wells, who wrote less scientific fiction and sent people to the moon with anti-gravity metal.

According to Davidson, "Religion on the other hand, putting the best possible face on it, wants us to believe that science has its place (is even useful at times) but is subordinate to some higher power that can flaunt science’s reason and logic whenever and wherever it so chooses, without requiring explanation." I don't know what religion he's talking about; it's certainly not Christianity, which describes a God who created a universe that operates on consistent principles. Christians insist on a realist metaphysics that posits the universe is as it appears to be and is not an illusion, and on a consistent physics that stems from that. These beliefs in reality and consistency makes science possible.

Wright gives us what will be the final block quote:

Since, as regular readers of this journal have heard me argue before, the scientific world view is not only part of the Christian world view, it cannot exist without intolerable paradox outside it, and since both the idea of the romance is an unique invention of Christendom, and since systematic investigation of natural philosophy called physics is likewise an unique invention of Christendom, to argue that the novel form of the scientific romance is incompatible with Christendom is like arguing that the Samurai story is incompatible with Japan, or the Cowboy story is incompatible with the Western frontier. [more . . .]

I would like to make a suggestion: since science fiction and fantasy are supposed to be about strange things, otherworldly landscapes, and exotic peoples from beyond the stars, the worldview of the modern liberal, or of the New Atheist, can only harm science fiction and fantasy, because if there is one thing that defines the liberal or New Atheist, it is an extremely rigid, close-minded parochialism. Anyone who gets indignant if he sees religion in his science fiction cannot possibly be mentally prepared to explore strange worlds, see strange sights, or hear of strange cultures. Likewise the liberal, who with all his talk of "multiculturalism" screams in indignation if he hears of such ordinary things as chastity or heroism, cannot be prepared for fantastic stories of love or daring-do. That is why, even as technical expertise in sf may become more refined, the stories and the characters they depict are degenerating.

Take, for example, the original Battlestar Galactica, which for all its shoddy world-building at least makes an attempt at depicting an alien civilization on the move and has fun in the process. Because it is Mormon (more-or-less), it contains a worldview--a religious worldview--that is exotic to most of its viewers, and for those viewers who like strangeness, as an sf fan should, that exotic worldview is part of the appeal. Now compare it with the remake of Battlestar Galactica, which is merely Sleazy Modern America IN SPACE and involves no fun whatsoever. Even with its sharper writing and better special effects, its dull familiarity makes it less believable than the original. I suppose the refugee space people in the remake may look and act and think exactly like we do because the show is supposed to be tackling current issues, but I secretly (or not so secretly, since I write about it on the Internet) believe it's because the writers didn't dare go against current fashions in mores and politics because it would bring the PC-Nazis down on their heads if they created a show about Mormons in space.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Movie Review: 'Apollo 18'

Apollo 18You know you're looking at a bad horror movie when the ad is just a picture of a guy screaming at the camera.

Apollo 18, directed by Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego. Written by Brian Miller. Starring Warren Christie and Lloyd Owen. Produced by Timur Bekmambetov. Dimension (2011).

I knew I was in for trouble when I discovered the movie had been withheld from critics. Sure enough, it is as dull and un-scary as imaginable. As a warning, I'm going to give everything away, but there isn't very much to give away anyway, and I want to do everything in my power to discourage people from seeing it.

Using the now weary gimmick of the found-footage film, Apollo 18 pretends to be the story of a final, secret mission to the moon (how to launch a Saturn V rocket in secret is not explained) taken by NASA on behalf of the Department of Defense to plant some special payload on the moon's south pole, intended to keep track of the Russians or something. After landing, the astronauts plant an implausible number of cameras to film everything.

We learn next to nothing about the virtually indistinguishable astronauts (names I can't remember and won't look up) who do a lot of hammy acting. On the moon, they discover a Russian lunar module, and in a deep crater they discover the body of a cosmonaut. And there's something else, too, probably an alien. One of the aliens gets in one of the astronaut's suits and he goes nuts with a rock hammer. His buddy gets more and more desperate and more and more hammy as the oxygen begins to run out and he fights for his life. Then comes the big reveal: the terrible monsters on the moon are . . . rocks. Yeah, rocks. They're like hermit crabs or something, except they crawl inside people and infect them with something for some reason.

Oh, and the DoD already knew about the lunar hermit crabs and wanted to waste millions of dollars getting some astronauts killed by them for the furtherence of science, or military power, or something. Not really clear on that point. This little dab of government corruption and conspiracy is meaningless, adding nothing to the drama, or lack thereof. It also defies explanation: how did the DoD know about the aliens, and what are they supposed to accomplish by sacrificing a couple of astronauts to them?

Everyone dies at the end, of course, and everything blows up, which adds one final piece of illogic to an ill-conceived movie: how did all the found footage from those handheld cameras make it back to Earth?

The most entertaining part of the movie, for me, was sitting next to a NASA buff who could tell me everything Apollo 18 got wrong. Besides the obvious-to-anybody errors like noisy aliens in a vacuum, the film depicts the lunar module having a "1201" error while landing, an error that never occurred again after Apollo 11 because that particular problem was fixed. The astronauts also take off their spacesuits while inside the lunar module, something they apparently never did in real life. They for some reason need to use a radio on the lunar rover in order to lift off from the moon, which has no basis in reality. They talk about being able to feel sharp drops in temperature as they walk around, whereas in reality they could feel nothing inside their suits as they moved between the moon's extreme heat and extreme cold. There were other flubs I can't even remember now; most of these are excusable to anybody who doesn't know the lunar missions in minute detail.

What isn't excusable is the agonizingly slow pacing and the complete lack of thrills. Aside from a couple of jump scenes that worked and one that doesn't, as well as two moments of bad-goodness (moments that are about five seconds each), it is a movie with nothing. Nada. Zip. I don't even know what to say about it now because the movie was like a leech, draining my creativity away. I spent the movie looking at my watch and occasionally giggling at the dumbest parts.

It probably could have been more interesting if not limited by the found-footage gimmick, which meant distracting graininess, weird editing, and the constant question of why exactly there are so many cameras everywhere. If the creatures were something more intriguing than hermit crabs, then the depiction of two astronauts trapped in a phone-booth-sized lunar module while something malevolent roams the waste outside might have been claustrophobic and intense, but here it is merely dull. If the astronauts had been likable characters or at least acted like professionals, they might have drawn audience sympathy, but they repeatedly act like dunderheads and make stupid decisions merely to advance the plot.

Content: It's not even frightening. Contains a little blood, a little foul language, and a lot of boredom.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Narcissistic Update

This morning, the final rough draft of my work in progress topped 400 pages. I call it the final rough draft because it's the fifth or sixth version of this particular work that I've produced (the total number of pages I've never counted, but they're probably around 2,000), and because I am certain the final draft will more-or-less follow the outline of this rough draft.

Whew. It's been years getting to this point, most of that time taken up with world-building and false starts. A breakthrough came in early spring when in an epiphany-like moment I figured out a piece of science-fictional phlebotinum necessary to hold the narrative's various parts together. It made the story much more coherent, and also had the happy side-effect of making it less brutal and disgusting (my work tends to get overly bloodthirsty if I let it). At that point, I could see where the story was headed, and from then on it has merely been a matter of getting the draft written, all the obvious problems having been sorted out. (The more subtle problems and plot holes, of course, won't be noticeable until the next phase.)

What I am working on, for the two of you who care, is a script for a graphic novel. The working title is Rag & Muffin, and it is set in an exotic, crime-ridden megalopolis built around an ancient temple city. The titular protagonists are an adorable little girl turned into an almost invincible martial artist by her mad scientist pediatrician, and her pet dragondog, who likes to hotwire cars. Much to my surprise, I have found that to make this version of the story work, I have had to put the psychotic cannibal cyborg furry back in, even though I earlier thought I needed to get rid of him.