Monday, August 31, 2009


UPDATE: Welcome, readers of Boneville, and thanks to Jeff Smith for the link.

I've read a few graphic novels lately that I've procrastinated posting about, so here goes.

I've seen Jeff Smith's name mentioned a lot in comics circles as being a highly-admired artist and writer, but I hadn't read him much at all except for his recent Shazam! miniseries (which I reviewed for GMR back when). Smith's most famous work to date is his gigantic opus Bone, which I'd held off reading for a while. The first time I heard of Bone was in the comics essay in one of the Year's Best Fantasy and Horror volumes about ten years ago now; the writer made the first of many comparisons I've seen over the years of Smith's work to Tolkien's. Well, that is certainly high praise.

But when I looked into a volume of Bone back in 2003 in the library, I remember being confused. I open to the first page and see, instead of epic fantasy goings-on, a trio of characters wandering through a wasteland. The characters are...well, they're hard to describe. Pasty-white, doughy folk. Short. It looked like, well, the Pilsbury Dough Boy and two of his friends wandered off for an adventure. Tolkien? Bone? Not so much. Maybe it was a great book, but...I wasn't going to find out right then.

Well, years go by, and I see more and more reference to Bone in reverent tones, with more comparisons of the book to Tolkien. Now I was finally intrigued, although I still didn't read the book; but when I read Smith's afore-mentioned Shazam!, I was highly impressed with Smith and decided that it was finally time to look into Bone. A little while after that I'm in a local bookstore and spot individual volumes of Bone priced cheaply ($9.99, I think), and picked one up. Then I forgot I owned it, as I do with many books I buy. I only read that first volume of Bone, Out From Boneville, a few months back, and I enjoyed it so much – it won me over in the first ten pages – that I soon tracked down the rest of the series in the enormous, single-volume edition.

When I say "enormous", I mean just that. Bone runs for more than 1300 pages. (That single volume edition retails at around forty bucks, but that's when I tend to use those 40%-off-any-item coupons that Borders sends me once in a while. It's the best way I know to make comics affordable. As I've noted before, I tend to think that price point of individual volumes is one of the major factors that keeps comics readership lower than we all know it should be.) And yes, it turns out that this is a comic of truly epic scope, even if it doesn't feel epic in its first few chapters. Bone's epic quality sneaks up on you, and there's the big way in which Smith's opus mirrors Tolkien's: the story starts out quite small indeed, and gradually becomes bigger and bigger and bigger over time until we realize that our heroes have stumbled into the middle of an ancient struggle that is about to climax.

The story opens with three "Bones" wandering in the desert: Phoncible P. Bone (otherwise known as "Phoney Bone"), Smiley Bone, and the one who will turn out to be our main hero, Fone Bone. They're known as "Bones" because they hail from "Boneville", a locale we never see. They have been kicked out of Boneville because one of Phoney Bone's get-rich-quick schemes has gone awry. Never fear, though: Phoney Bone is always ready with a new get-rich-quick scheme, much to the chagrin of the sweet-natured Fone Bone and much to the amusement of Smiley Bone, who finds mirth in nearly everything. Soon the Bones are separated, however, and Fone Bone finds himself stranded and alone in a dark and mysterious forest populated by talking insects, giant furry beasts called "Rat Creatures" who are menacing but not-terribly-bright, a dragon whom apparently only Fone Bone can see, and a girl named Thorn and her protective grandmother. Fone Bone follows Thorn to the little farmstead where she lives, and little by little finds himself drawn into various intrigues in this forest, where all is watched by a menacing figure who seems to be directing the Rat Creatures for some nefarious purpose.

Along the way, Fone Bone develops a crush on Thorn and bores everyone around him by obsessively discussing his favorite book (Moby Dick); he runs afoul of too many of Phoney Bone's schemes to remember; he runs afoul of a giant cat whose allegiances are unknown; he runs afoul of hidden perils called "Ghost Circles"; he travels into ancient shrines and ancient cities and finds himself in the middle of ancient wars.

Bone is really something special. It is long and epic, but also poignant and intimate and familiar. The characters' motivations are never unexplained or inexplicable, and much of the conflict is character-driven. There are sad moments and laugh-out-loud funny moments, and Jeff Smith ties it all together with wonderful art. Originally the series was done in black-and-white only (and that's how my single-volume edition is), but the smaller re-issues have been colored beautifully under Smith's direction. I prefer the B&W because it is (a) original and (b) cheaper. Bone is seriously wonderful stuff.

Smith's most recent comics work is an ongoing series called RASL. This is an ongoing series which Smith is apparently self-publishing. It's a science-fiction story that is aimed at mature audiences (which is a strong consideration after Smith's earlier appropriate-for-all-ages Bone and Shazam! work). I've only read the first volume of the graphic novels that are collecting it, so I don't have a strong impression of RASL yet. But it's a surprisingly dark and violent tale featuring an art thief who travels between dimensions using this gigantic gizmo he wears on his back. The book is hard to describe, and while I found it intriguing, I also found it hard to evaluate based on the little that is printed in the graphic novel edition. I'll probably wait however long it takes Smith to do RASL in its entirety before I really dig into it.

You can call me Mr. Filion.

A while back, I opined on Facebook that currently, the world's reigning God Emperor of Coolness is William Shatner. It is my belief that while Fonzie can snap his fingers to make the jukebox start up, a snap of William Shatner's fingers will cause all four original Beatles to materialize out of thin air, instruments in hand, to play a set.

I will now add a corollary: Shatner is God Emperor of Coolness, but the Crown Prince is Nathan Fillion.

Here's an older appearance by Fillion on Jimmy Kimmel's show:

All hail the future God Emperor of Coolness!

Sentential Links #182

Linkage, politics first....

:: I got to shake his hand at the end of the night. It was a huge hand. A hand that large could pick up and carry quite a load all on its own, and in a way, it did. It carried all of us.

:: Teddy himself was a fascinating figure in liberal politics. Although I was still in elementary school when JFK and RFK were assassinated, until I was nearly 30 I just assumed that Ted Kennedy was going to be president. It was as inevitable as the tide. I don't think I ever questioned it until the extremely trying 1980 primary campaign, when it became clear to me that the moment had probably passed. I don't think he did either.

But once it became clear, he didn't just turn his seat into a sinecure or retreat into cynicism, he carried on valiantly, becoming one of the few master legislators in American history, insisting on making progress by hook or crook even during the long era of conservative rule in which he served. And he took the slings and arrows from his enemies along the way with humor, dignity and class.

:: They should convene a panel for the next Meet the Press with Jenna Bush Hager, Luke Russert, Liz Cheney, Megan McCain and Jonah Goldberg, and they should have Chris Wallace moderate it. They can all bash affirmative action and talk about how vitally important it is that the U.S. remain a Great Meritocracy because it's really unfair for anything other than merit to determine position and employment. They can interview Lisa Murkowski, Evan Bayh, Jeb Bush, Bob Casey, Mark Pryor, Jay Rockefeller, Dan Lipinksi, and Harold Ford, Jr. about personal responsibility and the virtues of self-sufficiency. Bill Kristol, Tucker Carlson and John Podhoretz can provide moving commentary on how America is so special because all that matters is merit, not who you know or where you come from.

:: You do have to wonder when the honchos at Fox will realize that Glenn Beck may bring in the ratings, but he is inflicting a deep scar on their brand name that will be a long time fading.

And now the non-politics.

:: But is being the last woman standing on the cusp of the end of the world something a girl dreams of when she grows up?

:: WANKER! (Note to self: don't "friend" my boss on Facebook. Got it.)

:: So the other day I'm in the car with Sarah, and I say, "Last night I had a dream where Nathan Fillion was teaching my dad how to use the computer."

:: Since I am aging and becoming Totally Old, I would like a throbbing forehead vein like Clint Eastwood and various telekinetic manga characters. A throbbing forehead vein - is that too much to ask? (That's actually the entire post, but it also has a video clip. I just thought the quip was funny.)

:: In August 1979, I took my last drink. It was about four o'clock on a Saturday afternoon, the hot sun streaming through the windows of my little carriage house on Dickens. I put a glass of scotch and soda down on the living room table, went to bed, and pulled the blankets over my head. I couldn't take it any more. (Roger Ebert is really turning into a remarkable blogger.)

All for this week.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sunday Burst of Weirdness

Oddities abound!

:: OK, I'll admit that I tend to treat this series occasionally as less a repository for weird linkage and more a repository for "quick hits" linkage, i.e., stuff I want to link but not talk much about. It's a fair cop, but that's how I roll.

In that spirit, here's an interesting feature on the concept album in music. I like how the author points out that rock artists claim to have started the concept album idea when Frank Sinatra was doing it in the Fifties, but surely the proto-concept album was the song cycle, which occupied the minds of composers all through the 19th century. Heh!

(And Pink Floyd's The Wall is a great album.)

:: It strikes me as odd that a tool exists for the aiming of your car's washer fluid jets. You need a tool for this? When a safety pin, a thin probe, or -- if you work that kind of job -- the pin of a nametag can do the job?

:: Have I linked There, I fixed it yet? Probably...but this one had me wondering if we've just caught a glimpse into Steven Den Beste's car.

(Actually, I'm not sure SDB even has a car -- he seems to talk about walking everywhere as opposed to driving, but he doesn't use air conditioning and claims that on very hot days, blowing a fan across some blocks of ice actually does lower his apartment's temperature a bit, to bearable levels. The principle is certainly sound enough; it would provide some cooling, albeit not as much as an actual pressurized coolant inside a compressor-driven cooling system. But the ice will absorb heat energy from the warm air passed over it, and it'll reduce humidity as well as moist air condenses on the ice. SDB's method probably works longer, though, given the lower surface area of his giant blocks of ice; all those little cubes in the bag in the car will melt faster. And I know that SDB doesn't like unsolicited advice, but it's always seemed to me that he might save some money if he was to keep a few gallon milk jugs around and, when hot weather is in the forecast, fill them and freeze 'em for such use. It would probably be cheaper than buying large quantities of ice blocks -- but this also assumes large amounts of freezer space, which he may well not have. Probably just answered my own question.)

More next week.

"Obviously, we'd prefer for the stadium to not be consumed in a giant fireball...."

Buffalo Bills fans have been frustrated this preseason by the display put on by the starting offense. That's putting it mildly, actually. The Bills have had four preseason games thus far, with one more to come -- they had five this year instead of the usual four because they played the additional Hall of Fame Game -- and in those games, the starting offense has not scored a single touchdown. Ouch.

Now, there's all the usual remindering of how the preseason doesn't matter and how the games don't count and it's about shaking off the rust and breaking in the youngsters and evaluating talent and yada yada yada. And I don't think anyone would care if the Bills still lost all their preseason games -- the 1990 Bills went 0-4 in the preseason, before going 13-3 in the regular season for the first of their four Super Bowl seasons -- but fans would still like to see some evidence of improvement, of basic competence. Fans would like to see some evidence, any little scrap of it, that the team hasn't actually managed to regress. That evidence has not been forthcoming.

I remember back during the 2001 through 2003 seasons, when Gregg Williams was the Bills' head coach, and the offense was as inept then as it is now. (Except for '02, when the offense was actually good for a single year but the defense was awful.) The Bills would lose a game 17-7, 13-6, 20-3, or something like that, and Williams would take the microphone at the postgame conference and, when asked for positives from the game, say things like "We punted the ball well today." It was mindboggling to me then, and now -- the one guy on your team whom you do not want to have a career day is your punter. But there was Williams, praising the guy whose job it is to kick the ball to the other team when you've failed to advance it. Oy.

Which brings me to last night's preseason game against the Steelers. Now, we're talking about the Steelers here -- defending Super Bowl champions, two Super Bowl titles in four years, one of the NFL's top three teams, and the NFL's best defense -- so it wasn't totally shocking that the Bills couldn't put any points on the board. But still, you'd like to see some movement, some evidence of competence, however slight. Instead, the Bills totaled 135 yards overall. Their quarterbacks combined for 96 passing yards. They converted zero out of eight third-downs. They were, simply, bad.

And now, this morning, I see that head coach Dick Jauron was looking for positives from the game, and he proceeded to opine:

"I guess I could say I thought we punted it well."

Where oh where is Marty Schottenheimer?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

He has concluded that we are NOT orcs.

Walking Tree Man, II, originally uploaded by Jaquandor.

Last Friday, The Family and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Erie County Fair. We used to actually go to the Fair twice during its run, but that got to be too expensive, so now we pack everything into a single day. We arrived at 10:30 in the morning and left after 11:00 at night, after everything had closed down except the Midway and the beer tents. It was a long and tiring and happy day. County Fairs are wonderful things.

And this year, the weather was perfect on our day. The last two years, we got rained out. Two years ago the day was rainy the whole time and we finally gave up around 5:00; last year, there were sporadic showers throughout the day that we were able to work our way around, but then around 7:00 there was a good downpour that soaked everything before moving on. It cleared up right afterward, but it was also late enough that we knew that nothing would dry out because the sun was about to set.

What do we do at the Fair? Fair stuff, obviously. We look at all of the animals (this is of limited interest to me, but The Wife grew up on a farm, so she loves it, and so does The Daughter). We ride some rides. We go into the exhibit halls and see artworks by local artists (although we didn't make it into the woodcarving building this year). We wander through the various buildings that feature shopping and sales pitches; there's something totally infectious about the sheer hucksterism on display at the County Fair each year. And yeah, we eat. Our traditional Fair lunch is a corn dog, which are always fresh out of the fryer. We get Po'Boy sandwiches, and a giant bag of Kettle Corn; we get maple cotton candy and ribbon fries (usually -- we missed the ribbon fries this year) and pizza and ice cream and we wash it all down with lots of birch beer (in addition to the water we carry in ourselves). And usually, the next day I gnaw on a head of lettuce all day to make up for the salt-and-fat laden day before.

This, and the posts that follow, are all photos I took from our day at the Fair. More are available at my Flickr photostream. This particular photo is of a new thing this year: the "Walking Tree Man", who looks like an Ent, clearly enough. I wasn't terribly sure what the point of this was, but it looked cool enough. I restrained myself from making a bunch of Treebeard jokes, though.

The Carousel, after dark

Carousel, III, originally uploaded by Jaquandor.

The Carousel at the Fair is one of The Daughter's favorite rides. She's loved carousels pretty much since the first time she ever rode one (when she was two, I think). The Fair's carousel is a double-decker ride with lots of different things to ride: horses that go up and down, horses that remain stationary, a couple of spinning "tea cup" type seats, a couple of benches that rock back and forth, and a couple of benches that don't move at all. Something for everyone on this thing.

I was taking random shots of the carousel at night, of which this is one. I didn't even realize that I'd taken this young woman's photo until I put the photos on the computer a few days later. I have no idea who she is; she just happened to be in the frame when I clicked the shutter release. But I like the way she's sitting on the horse; I wonder who she was showing off for.

"Arrrr! Ride me carousel, maties!"

Carousel, II, originally uploaded by Jaquandor.

The Carousel at the Fair is one of my favorite things there, because it's a gorgeous ride and its art is pirate-themed. Drink up, me hearties! Yo ho!

Charlotte's Revenge

Charlotte's Revenge, originally uploaded by Jaquandor.

This diorama, also in the Fine Arts building (see below), cracked me up. It looks nice and all, and 'A for effort' and all that, but I just couldn't get beyond the relative size of Charlotte compared to Orville and the rest of the gang. It's like Charlotte has become the radioactive mutant spider that gave Peter Parker his powers. I'll bet this Charlotte isn't nice and sweet:

"I'm back, boys, and I'm not so happy this time! Now tell me, where's that gluttonous bastard Templeton? He and I have business...."

A bee

A bee, originally uploaded by Jaquandor.

The Fair has a parade that winds its way through the fairgrounds every day at 5:00, so at that time we took a seat on a bench beside some bushes and waited. I glanced to my left, right at the bush, and saw this bumble bee, happily and busily going about its daily business. I took a few photos of him; this is the only one that really looked decent. It was fascinating to watch him work. He took no notice of us at all.

The Whirling of the Swings

The Swings, II, originally uploaded by Jaquandor.

While The Daughter was riding the bumper cars six or seven times consecutively, I spent some time studying this ride, just next door. It's the usual "spinning swing" ride, but I loved the pseudo-Victorian decor of the ride -- the paintings and the coloring and the ornate scrollwork and all that. Very cool. I love it when carnival rides don't just look like a bunch of steel rods, gears, and pulleys.

Ach, if not for the non-life-sized ship....

One of my favorite places at the County Fair is the Fine Arts building, where all entrants pertaining to the Fine Arts are displayed. Paintings, photographs, quilting, topiaries, costumery, cultivation of African violets and other flowers, et cetera, all in one building. We usually spend quite a bit of time in this building.

There's always a section of the building given over to dioramas like this. I suppose a couple of themes are assigned and then entrants craft their entries around one of them; this year, one of the themes was "Treasure Island", so there were three different dioramas devoted to all things piratical. Every diorama further sports a card on which the judges' comments are noted. This one cracked me up, because if you click through to the large size, you can read it:

"Ship not life size."

So, apparently this diorama would have been perfect if the artist had erected the Black Pearl behind it. Hmmmm.

The Midway at Night, I

The Midway at Night, I, originally uploaded by Jaquandor.

I don't know if my little Kodak digital point-and-shoot is equipped to take good night photos and I just haven't figured it out, or not, but I'm usually slightly disappointed that I can't get the Midway at night to look as bright in photos as it is in person. Nevertheless I like the way this turned out. I took this from about one-quarter of the way up while we rode the Giant Wheel.


Yorick!, originally uploaded by Jaquandor.

From one of the more famous scenes in one of Shakespeare's greatest plays, to the indignity of being used thusly at the Erie County Fair! For shame, for shame.

This was a booth selling all kinds of knick-knacks in this vein: place settings and decor for the goth set, I suppose.

(More County Fair photo posts will follow.)

Friday, August 28, 2009

You keep using that word....

John Scalzi, having previously displayed some very odd notions about what "good design" is all about (and having been factually wrong in the process), turns his eye from Star Wars to Star Trek. Unfortunately, the results are about the same: he gets some things wrong (the Probe in STIV is not attempting to "destroy everything"), he makes some odd assertions (his bit about phasers is just weird), and instead of talking about "design" he ends up talking about scientific plausibility. I mean, sure, "Red Matter" is one of the worst Maguffins I myself have ever seen in a movie, but what on Earth does that have to do with design?

Now, weird design choices in Star Trek aren't that hard to find. Since there's no real reason for it to be there, putting the bridge on top of the ship where it's totally exposed is an odd choice. In the most recent movie, the design of the Romulan mining ship makes no sense, what with catwalks over yawning chasms and everyone splashing through ankle-deep water and all. But there's more to critiquing design than saying that Red Matter is full of crap.

Oh well. This is clearly another attempt by John to get the geeks fired up, so mission accomplished!

Thursday, August 27, 2009


I always liked Florence Griffith-Joyner, the great US track athlete from the late 80s and early 90s, and I was shocked when she suddenly died.

Here's a pretty amazing article about Al Joyner and his incandescent love for Florence.

Dreams were her gift. Every morning, she'd wake up and tell her husband, Al, how she'd dreamed about angels or daughters or catastrophe. Good or bad, she'd always wake up with a story to tell -- until the day she never woke up at all.

Al never had that gift. His dreams were vague, or they'd escape him 20 seconds into his day. He had nothing to jot down like she did, nothing to file away for a conversation over dinner. Even after she died some 11 years ago, he never dreamt of her, could never summon her back into his subconscious. This frustrated him to no end, because, once he was awake, all he did was daydream about her.

But then, about 10 weeks ago, in the middle of his deepest sleep, Al Joyner finally saw Flo Jo. She had driven up in a car, smiling, and strolled casually toward him. She was stunning, as always, and wore her hair in a bun, just the way he'd always adored it. He asked her, "What are you doing here?" And her response was, "I'm just coming to check on you." He didn't know what to say next. Their daughter, Mary, was about to graduate from high school, and he wanted to ask, "Are you here for graduation?" But before he could speak, his alarm clock went off.

The buzzing jarred him, and his dream was barely intact now. He could see her leaving, climbing back into her car, smiling again. He wanted more, wanted a full-blown conversation, but an instant later, Al was awake, the moment over.

He sat up in bed, both agitated and wistful. That was it? That was the whole dream? He hadn't finished. There was so much to tell her, about him and Mary and premonitions that had come true. There was also news to share, news she'd probably beam about.

The next night, he went to bed early, hoping Flo Jo would reappear, hoping the dream would pick up where it left off.

But when he woke up, nothing. He wanted to punch his pillow. Nothing.

Do read the whole thing.

Something for Thursday

Time for a break from all the classical of late and for something Celtic. Here is the band Great Big Sea, joining in with the Chieftains for a raucous rendition of the song "Lukey".

(Lyrics here, for reference.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


He would have been five today. Had he not suffered the brain damage that caused his cerebral palsy, he would be entering Kindergarten this year. Alas, it wasn't to be, and we'll wonder "what if" for all the rest of our days.

Here he is, in the arms of his grandmother, who has since joined him...wherever it is that we go, when we leave.

Happy birthday, Little Quinn.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Work in Progress....

Don't be alarmed, folks, but I'm in the process of changing my template. At long last I've grown bored of how the place has been looking. Bear with me as things will be slightly hinky for a while.

UPDATE: I think I've got it roughly the way I want it to look for right now, but does anyone know how to get rid of that "read more" link that's on each post? I don't do expanded posts like that, and thus have no need of that feature.

Don't Eat the Snow in Hawaii

That's the title of the very first episode ever of Magnum PI, which I saw Part One of last night, for the first time in...well, many moons. Watching favorite old teevee shows is, of course, an eternal pleasure, but particularly special are the pilot episodes of favorite shows. It's always fun to see things in retrospect in the old pilots, from shows I know very well; noting the way characters interact at the outset before the show evolves, with the writers and producers learning what chemistries among the cast work best.

In "Don't Eat the Snow in Hawaii", the relationship between Magnum and Higgins is a lot more antagonistic than it would be later in the show's run, owing to the fact that the pilot takes place early in their professional association, when neither man knows the other very well and certainly neither man takes the other particularly seriously. Magnum's trademark narration of his adventures is present, but here it has a weird sound to it, with heavy reverb as though we're listening to Magnum's ghost. And the phrases he would use a lot later on in the show in his narrations -- "I know what you're thinking, and you're right", "When I write my book on how to be a world-class private investigator, I'll include a chapter on...." -- are not to be found. But other stuff -- high-speed chases in the Ferrari, Magnum's Viet Nam and Naval Intelligence history -- are there from the get-go.

A word on the presentation of the show itself. Here in Buffalo, channel 2.3 -- part of our local NBC affiliate's trio of digital channels -- airs "Retro TV", which is just that: old teevee shows. Weeknights have been kind of fun this summer, with The A-Team and Magnum, PI airing each night. What has been kind of irritating, though, is that the channel is airing Magnum in no semblance of any kind of order. This always frustrates me. I tend to believe that when shows are aired in syndication, they need to be aired in the order they were originally telecast. This gives the opportunity to follow a show through in sequence, which in some cases is downright essential, in the case of shows with serialistic qualities. Now, Magnum, PI wasn't entirely serialistic, but it did observe some continuity throughout its run. When the episodes are aired all over the place, as Retro TV is doing, the continuity is thrown out the window. It's kind of frustrating.

Also disappointing, for me as an old fan of this show, is that the version of "Don't Eat the Snow" is edited so that the show starts with the standard credits sequence. But "Don't Eat the Snow" was a two-hour TV-movie, actually, and it featured a different credits sequence than the one we all know from later in the show's run -- and that credits sequence actually took place about five minutes into the episode! I tried to find that sequence online and failed, but you can hear the first Magnum, PI theme song here. At the beginning, you hear the revving sound of the Ferrari's engine as Magnum speeds away, and then the titles begin, with animation based on what was, I assume, intended to be a major visual motif of the series -- the Cross of Lorraine that was engraved on the ring that Magnum and his fellow Viet Nam buddies wear. While the eventual Magnum theme song would become one of the iconic teevee theme songs, I still like the "70s private eye" vibe of the original.

Facehugging the Body Electric

(Yes, that post title makes sense.)

Rewatching movies I haven't seen in years, or even decades now, is a sometimes-pleasurable thing to do. Why only sometimes? Because sometimes I find myself admiring a film anew or rediscovering why I liked it in the first place; other times, however, I find myself either finding that a film I liked once isn't as good as I remember it, or that a film I didn't like to begin with is still a film I don't like.

Fame came out in 1980. I recall it being highly regarded at the time, although since it was an R movie, I didn't get to see it. (Of course, I was nine and my interests were nowhere in the remote vacinity of a movie like Fame.) Later there was a teevee series that ran for several years based on the movie, but I didn't get to watch the film itself until I caught it on teevee at some point in the late 80s. It might have even been on PBS, I'm not sure...but it was a heavily-edited version. How edited? Well, it turns out, now that I've finally seen the whole thing as it ran in the theaters, heavily edited. There are a number of characters in Fame - not all of them, but a few – who are incapable of uttering a sentence without using the F-word at least three times in the sentence, including one very angry rant early in the film from a girl who doesn't get into the prestigious school.

Fame follows a group of students through their years at the High School for the Performing Arts in New York City. We meet them during the audition process, and then track their progress through each of their four years in this school, wherein they learn to hone their respective artistic crafts. We see musicians, dancers, and actors in their auditions. Some are more convincing than others, of course; some are clearly delusional in their attempt to get into this school. One girl is a prospective dancer; she brings a male friend along with her to be her dance partner through her audition. Even though he's just along for the ride, the male friend ends up impressing the judges more than the girl, who is rejected and walks out of the school and back to her regular life with a stream of profane invective. Another girl is auditioning to be an actress; at first glance her audition looks to be a disaster (her scene is someone waiting for an elevator) but when next we see her, she's attending class.

We focus in, of course, on a few of these students more than others. The guy who was only a dance partner but ended up in the school is the "kid with the massive chip on his shoulder" who runs afoul of a stern teacher who won't let him slack off one bit. There are the two acting students who are apparently very talented while also being very insecure, as well as the very talented singer and musician and would-be comedian who are very talented but who hide their insecurities well.

As the movie goes on, we basically follow these kids through their trials and tribulations mainly through small vignettes. We are invited to compare and contrast their behaviors as they grow, and to see them blossom in some cases and retreat into their shells in others. Each character is a fascinating person; there isn't a single uninteresting character in this film. If anything, the film leaves me wanting to spend more time with these kids, and there is the ever-present desire to learn what became of all these kids after they graduate. (There is a cautionary tale there, in the way a graduating senior upon whom our heroes look in awe when they are freshmen turns out to be waiting tables three years later when our heroes are seniors.)

Fame is also a musical. The songs are decent enough; the most famous is the title number, with vocals by Irene Cara. The closing number, "I Sing the Body Electric", is also a fine song. In truth, though, I had a bit of trouble with the musical nature of the film. Maybe it's that the first number doesn't come until about twenty minutes into the film, but for some reason, the film's realism works against the musical numbers. The film attempts to ground the numbers in the realistic setting, but somehow they still end up feeling false in a way. I like the movie's songs, but the film ends up being a musical that just doesn't feel like a musical.

My larger quibble with the film is that I just didn't think it was long enough. The movie creates an amazing world, within the walls of that school, and it populates that world with characters who are fascinating. I wanted to spend more time with them, to see more of their struggles and more of their conflicts and more of their successes and their failures. Maybe the fault here is that the film has too many characters, and thus to get them all in has to short-change them a bit, but I'm not sure that's the case as I can't decide for the life of me that, if that's the case, which character I would cut from the film. But I didn't see enough of the tense relationship between the black dance student and the gruff English teacher; I didn't see enough of the young electronic musician and the cab-driver father who dotes on him; I didn't see enough of the red-haired young gay actor. What we see of these people is great stuff! I wanted to see more of it, to such a degree that I must consider it a fault that I didn't.

What I would not do is exactly what the film was wise enough to not do: we are given no hint at all as to the lives of these characters after they graduate and pursue their individual crafts. There is no American Graffiti-type summation that tells us who went on to be a successful writer, and who went on to be a career insurance salesman, and who got killed in a war. Fame leaves that entirely up to us.

So, after gushing about Fame, what's the other movie that I re-watched recently? Well, I've never been a fan of the Alien franchise. I didn't care for the first film, I didn't care for the second, the third is crap on a stick, and on that basis I never bothered watching the fourth. But for some reason, I decided to give the original Alien another shot. And I still don't like it.

Alien always gets props for being a classic of the horror genre, but I just don't know. Boiled down, it's just "horrible thing jumps out from the dark", set in space. There are horror stories – movies, books, what have you – that retain their effectiveness on repeat explorations. Now, the specific "creep moments" may lose some effectiveness when you know what happens and who survives and who doesn't and how those who don't meet their fate, but the really great horror stories still manage to horrify on deeper levels, with psychological insights and that sort of thing. The final scene in The Silence of the Lambs can no longer put me on the edge of my seat, even when we see Buffalo Bill's hand reaching for Agent Starling through the night vision glasses, because I know how that turns out. But I can still be disturbed by the film's delving into a harrowing world of human psychosis.

Not so with Alien, where I continue to find that the movie's set pieces lose their effectiveness completely when I know what happens, and where I find all the stuff in between the set pieces largely uninteresting filler. And that's a shame, because the film's production design really is awfully good. Nostromo looks like an actual place, which is essential. But so what? As has been my impression for years, Alien remains a monster movie that doesn't have much to say about the monster, or what it means to be a monster, or how we should react to monsters, or anything else. The characters in Alien are not all that interesting, save for the two "grunts" who keep griping about their pay scale. In terms of interesting characters, the sequel Aliens is much better (and I end up disliking that movie for other reasons entirely).

The first time I saw Alien, I'll admit that it was pretty gripping and scary. But each time thereafter -- well, not so much. I've drawn this analogy before, but a friend once told me about the odd experience she had about a funny amusement park mishap she experienced once while riding a roller-coaster that takes place inside a building with all the lights off, in order to make a run-of-the-mill coaster more terrifying. I don't recall if it was "Space Mountain" or someplace else, but she said that something went awry – maybe a power outage – just as her car was being pulled onto the track. The emergency lights came on, revealing the entire structure of the ride, and revealing it to be what it was all along: a humdrum coaster in a building. I find watching Alien now to be basically like riding "Space Mountain" with all of the lights turned on: when I know what's going to happen, it's a very humdrum movie.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Fallen Heroes

For me, the greatest heroes in American public life are firefighters and EMTs. These are people whose job is simply to do whatever they need to do to save lives, no matter whose. They charge into terribly dangerous situations, often almost by reflex, in order to save people. There is no occupation which I consider more admirable -- and there are a lot of admirable occupations out there.

Two Buffalo firefighters died this morning in a fire. The building was a deli in one of Buffalo's poorest neighborhoods. The fire was in the middle of the night, and the two firefighters in question, Lt. Charles 'Chip' McCarthy and Firefighter Jonathan Croom, apparently had the floor collapse from under their feet. Reports are that they were looking for someone whom they thought was trapped in the building.

They died doing what firefighters do: being heroic and almost certainly not even questioning why they were doing it. I'll bet that if you asked them, they'd have shrugged and said, It's what firefighters do..

Bless their souls, forever.

Sunday Burst of Weirdness (Monday Edition)

Sorry that I didn't get to this yesterday, but it was an unexpectedly busy day on the home front (a bit of furniture shifting and some cooking, basically). Anyway, I found some great stuff, as always, at the ever-reliable, such as this clock; an awesome school bus for Hayao Miyazaki fans; and a fountain that would make MC Escher proud.

I'll try to be on the right day next week.

Sentential Links #182

Before we begin, I'm instituting a new policy here with regard to these posts: I will be shutting off comments, so if you wish to vehemently disagree with something I link, your recourse is to visit that blog and register your vehement disagreement in THEIR comments. Which is kind of why I started doing these posts in the first place, anyway.

(But if anybody's wondering, no, I'm not likely to remain in a political mood forever; this is not going to become a "political" blog. But I never promised anyone a complete avoidance of politics -- or, rather, I did, but that was seven years ago when the blog was new -- and right now, the health care debate has me pretty fired up. For ease of use, I'll organize these posts a bit so those who don't want to read the political links can slide right by them.)


:: Like most conservatives who argue for "tort reform," Palin elides the difference between "frivolous" suits (which the courts, by all accounts, do an efficient job of rejecting) and decisions rendered by juries in actual cases of malpractice. Her solution, predictably, is to use the thunderous power of the state to cap awards; for someone who believes phantom "death panels" are looming over the horizon, Palin's faith that government can establish a fair ceiling on the economic value of human life is remarkable. Ultimately, capping malpractice damages might have the effect of reducing malpractice suits, but it will reduce legitimate ones as well, and it won't do anything to reduce the cost of liability insurance, which represents far and away a greater weight on the cost of health care than any malpractice suit that winds its way through the courts. More significantly, the link between "tort reform" and better, safer health care is opaque at best. I'm sure Sarah Palin has an explanation for why damage caps will spur medical practitioners to new heights of Hippocratic vigilance, but she's probably trying to decide how that issue relates to something she did while she was mayor of Wasilla.

:: I tend to be pretty squishy and bleeding heart over things like compassionate release for prisoners with terminal diseases. (I don't. Or rather, I don't if the prisoner has been sentenced for life. To me, that means, "You're going to die here." It does not mean, "We'll keep you here until life gets awfully painful and debilitating, in which case we'll let you go." Give them end-of-life care, manage their pain, whatever -- but releasing them? Ugh. And releasing the Lockerbie bomber makes me want to vomit.)

:: Just once, I'd love to hear producers/hosts explain why McCain has to be on one at least one of the Sunday shows 11 times in eight months. Refresh my memory: was there this much interest in John Kerry's take on current events in 2005? (Surely it's because John McCain is just chock full of insightful things to say, as in, "I totally want Sarah Palin to be President if I die!")

:: The central political reality of health-care reform is that if the bill fails, the vulnerable centrists who are queasiest about supporting it will be the casualties of its collapse. Properly understood, Barack Obama's popularity is not very useful for pressuring wavering Democrats. If the president remains popular, they have little to fear. Rather, it's his unpopularity that should concern them.

:: We live in a nation which spends more than any other on its military, which has comprehensive public education from kindergarten through graduate school, has public police forces and fire departments, has Medicare and Social Security and maintains any number of other socialized programs. There is a reason that we have these programs, and that reason is that the alternatives are bad for you. You don’t have a choice about paying for the fire department because having market-based private fire protection would be a terribly burny idea. We have comprehensive public education because even with market-based private choices, we recognize that it’s a terrible thing for society if we have a permanent underclass of children who are consigned to illiteracy. Americans, I have faith, truly enjoy it when society as a whole does not screw over people who could potentially be them.

:: When the hollering started and some of these guys claimed it mean that America had conclusively rejected the Obama Presidency after seven months, I thought they were just exaggerating for political effect. Now I begin to think they really believe it. And so we find ourselves trying to right a badly listing ship of state with a large percentage of our countrymen convinced that their first order of business should be to throw the rest of us over the side.

:: But maybe it's not Frank's response to that woman that's the beginning of something. Maybe it's the crowd's cheers. Maybe it will get noticed---or maybe we can make it get noticed---that those are the cheers of Americans who aren't afraid of Nazis and commies under their beds, who don't need to carry weapons in public to make their points, who listen and pay attention and think, and who want good health care for everyone.

:: "Death panels" is such an excellent term. You know exactly what it means, and therefore you know you're against them. Debate over. This term more than anything else seems to have unified the opposition to the Obama health care proposals. It fuels the anger that has essentially shut down "town hall" meetings intended for the discussion of the issues.

Of course the term is inspired by a lie. There are no conceivable plans to form "death panels" or anything like them. The Obama plan, which has some bipartisan support, doesn't seek or desire to get involved in any decisions about who should live and who should die. But now we hear "death panel" repeated so often that the term has taken on a sort of eerie reality, as if it really referred to anything.
(Also worthwhile is Ebert's follow-up post.)


:: It's also annoying. Charles Darwin was wrong about many things — I'll even give an example at the end of this article — and it's part of the nature of science that everyone's work will be revised and refined over time, and some of us will even be shown to be completely wrong. It's rather unseemly to collect a lot of data that Darwin did not have, run it through PAUP 4.0 on a fast computer, map the data onto a molecular consensus phylogeny, and cackle gleefully over discovering something Darwin did not know. Really, it doesn't make you a better scientist than Darwin.

:: Mike was the last one to leave. I was suddenly overwhelmed, and we hugged, and I said, in tears, "I'm overwhelmed - thank you so much." He said, "Listen, baby, what we did today was a barn-raising." (A wonderful post that should be read by anyone who has more books than storage space. And like I said in comments over there, the post should really be read with this music playing in the background.)

:: Here in this part of Oklahoma the scenery is not as spectacular as in the Talimena area but we do have some fairly impressive hills and lots of trees. (I can't remember if I've linked Lynn's recent posts in which she's putting up photos she's taken of Oklahoma, but even if I have, they're worth re-linking because that is one beautiful state. I've never been to Oklahoma.)

:: In short, we did none of the major monuments, nor did we go see the Capitol, or the Supreme Court, or the White House. But what we saw was all worth while. Wish we could go back. (I find it harder and harder to believe that I've spent so much of my life within a day's drive of Washington, DC and yet I've never been there.)

:: I've said in the past on this blog that, much as I love Gilbert and Sullivan, I usually can't bring myself to go to see their works performed any more. Part of this is just something that can't be helped by anyone who puts on a G&S operetta: there aren't that many of these works, and by design (Gilbert's design) the characters have no depth, so there really is very little you can do to make them fresh. If you know the music and lyrics and script, almost nothing a G&S production does can surprise you. But most productions try to solve this problem with gimmicks, rewritten lyrics and dialogue, non-singers in singing roles. None of this gives the plot or characters any more depth than they had before, and they make the production harder to sit through. (Spare the next teevee sitcom that thinks the height of comic sophistication is to re-work the lyrics to "Modern Major General" yet again!)

:: Where's our GooglePern, GoogleWorldofGreyhawk, GoogleRiverworld?

All for this week.

Friday, August 21, 2009

You will believe a droid can fly.

John Scalzi rips into Star Wars on the basis of bad design.

Sure, he's cute, but the flaws in his design are obvious the first time he approaches anything but the shallowest of stairs. Also: He has jets, a periscope, a taser and oil canisters to make enforcer droids fall about in slapsticky fashion -- and no voice synthesizer. Imagine that design conversation: "Yes, we can afford slapstick oil and tasers, but we'll never get a 30-cent voice chip past accounting. That's just madness."

And over at Slashdot, some other folks respond. A sample comment that I liked:

That complaint [that Stormtroopers are crappy marksmen] always bugged me. I know of 4 occasions in Episode IV (I won't get into the other episodes) where the stormtroopers fire at the heroes.

1. 3P0/R2 wander across the field of fire - Troopers shoot past them to get the actual targets (exactly as you would expect from trained marksmen)
2. Falcon takes off - Troopers shoot at AND HIT a vehicle moving at high speed away from them
3. Trash Compactor - Troopers aren't able to hit a group of people taking cover a good distance off down a dark cooridor. Concealment and Camouflage but they're able to get pretty close in the few seconds they have before they escape.
4. Deathstar Escape Scene - Troopers miss every shot at the group of rebels who are going to lead them to the rebellion base...hmm, could it be they were ordered to miss?

Every other time we see the stormtroopers fire they hit their targets perfectly.

Obvously, Scalzi was just kicking over an anthill to see the ants scurry. But I'm an ant, so I'll scurry a bit as well! First of all, it takes a sharp eye to catch it, but R2-D2 is not stopped dead in his tracks by stairs; he is quite able to negotiate them, albeit somewhat awkwardly. But this makes clear the failing in John's "argument" (to the extent that he has one; like I said, he's just kicking over anthills here).

Simply put, there is a difference between bad design and something being not good at doing something it's not designed to do. R2-D2 is not designed to trundle all over the place and climb stairs and all that. He's designed to roll around, or be locked into place on a ship, and fix stuff. He wasn't built with the notion in mind of bearing the stolen Death Star plans across the desert wastes of Tatooine; he wasn't built with the notion in mind of picking his way across the bottom of a swamp on Dagobah; he wasn't built with the notion in mind of, well, going up and down stairs. John's complaint here sounds to me like if I were to complain that my Swiss Army knife is badly designed because it doesn't drill holes in wood very well. (And no, R2 does not use his jets to climb stairs. He uses his legs. Watch at about the :55 mark on this video. Sure, he's slow at it, but it's not what he was built for.)

Likewise, if R2-D2 isn't designed to talk to people, why would he have a voice synthesizer? This is like complaining about The Wife's sewing machine's onboard computer not being able to play DVDs.

One of the better comments on the difference between design and utility is in the movie Apollo 13. After the accident on the ship and the determination that there will be no moon landing and now the mission is recovery of the astronauts, a bunch of NASA Mission Control guys are in a room discussing options, and one man from the company that actually built the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) objects that the LEM is not designed to be a lifeboat; it's designed solely for landing on the moon. And Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) snaps back, "I don't care what anything was designed to do. I care about what it can do."

(But just to geek out for a quick moment: the notion that Star Wars abounds with bottomless chasms unprotected by guard rails is really false, when there's only one such locale in the movies: the power terminal that Obi Wan deactivates in A New Hope. Two things, though: that terminal is probably meant to be serviced by droids instead of humans, and droids are undoubtedly seen as expendable should they fall (and service droids probably have better balance anyway). And anyway, the Death Star later turns out to have been designed by a race of beings who have wings and can fly! Heh. OK, I'm done.)

"One land, one king!"

Here's a good example of something that makes clear that I'll never understand the mindset that governs the way Hollywood does business. Apparently Bryan Singer, who was reported last week as being attached to a new Battlestar Galactica reboot movie, is also near to being attached to a project to remake John Boorman's classic King Arthur film Excalibur:

Warner Bros. has closed a rights deal to remake the 1981 “Excalibur,” with Bryan Singer producing and developing the picture as a potential directing vehicle.

Deal comes as Singer gets serious about making the New Line-Legendary co-production “Jack the Giant Killer” his next directing effort, according to sources.

WB and Legendary Pictures have labored for months to pull together the rights to the film, which Singer will produce with Julie Yorn. Polly Johnsen, who was Polly Cohen when she was the WB exec who presided over the Singer-directed WB/Legendary collaboration “Superman Returns,” will also be a producer.

What catches me here isn't the notion of remaking Excalibur so much as this: according to this, Warner Bros. has spent months and, by obvious extension, lots of money to acquire the remake rights to Excalibur. But Excalibur was based on material that has been in the public domain literally for centuries! This is what I don't get. If Warner Bros. wanted to do a King Arthur movie, they could have simply hired a writer and said, "Write us a draft of a script based on the Arthurian legends." But Hollywood suits don't think like that, do they? They don't think in terms of getting a project done, they think in terms of properties to be acquired. Which means that where they could make any movie they want based on Le Morte d'Arthur, they'd much rather spend orders of magnitude more money to acquire rights to a thirty-year old movie.

The mind reels.

(And really, why remake Excalibur anyway? The original is really about as good an Arthurian movie as I think can probably be made, given the non-cinematic nature of the source material. If the suits are that keen on hopping on the filmed-fantasy bandwagon, there are lots of unmade properties out there. This makes no sense.)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Moving forward - the same direction as always.

I wrote once before on the initial graphic novel set in the Firefly universe, Those Left Behind. Now there are two such graphic novels; Those Left Behind has been joined by Better Days. While I'll pretty much jump at nearly any chance to revisit this universe, neither of these two graphic novels is completely satisfying, which is oddly disappointing considering my belief that comics is the ideal medium for the Firefly universe to live on, if live on it does.

The problem with each one boils down simply to the fact that they are too short. It took me about twenty minutes to read each one; they're just too slight. It's really pretty frustrating; you would think that comics would give Joss Whedon room to breathe with his Firefly tales, but apparently these books are collections of miniseries that were mandated at just three issues apiece. The result are fun stories full of that Firefly flair that nevertheless flash by, without a real sense of the stories being fleshed out or with the subplots resolved too quickly or not given enough room to breathe.

Those Left Behind is apparently intended to lead right into the movie Serenity, and thus sets up things like Shepherd Book having left the ship when the movie starts and the two "Hands of Blue" pursuers of River Tam having been replaced by The Operative. Thus, parts of Those Left Behind probably won't make sense to anyone who hasn't seen the movie, or if they do make sense, they won't realize how things are resolved at the end of the story.

Better Days tells a "standard" Firefly story; this could have been an episode of the show, really. The crew performs one of its less-than-legal jobs, but unlike most jobs Captain Reynolds and crew take on, this one results in a huge payday, resulting in the crew getting to indulge some fantasies as to what they would do if they had lots and lots and lots of money. (Jayne's fantasy is a hoot, and River Tam's is...well, you'll have to read it yourself.) It's a good story, but again, it contains one too many subplots for a story that is only being told in three issues. Also, since the page count is at a premium, the action sequences in these comics tend to be hard to follow. They almost seem like individual frames taken from filmed action sequences, and as such it's often hard to understand who is doing what.

This is all a shame. I don't know if Firefly has a future in comics or not; while I enjoyed these two books, I can't think they really helped the cause at all. Three issues here, three issues there – that's no way to sustain interest in the 'Verse. Bummer.

(Apparently a third Firefly comic, one which fleshes out the background of Shepherd Book, is on the way at some point.)

Something for Thursday

Emanuel Chabrier was a French composer at the end of the nineteenth century. He was active at the time when Debussy and Ravel were coming into their own, and Chabrier's voice is a more minor one in the annals of French music, but he wrote vibrant music. His best known work is this musical tribute to the land to France's south. Here's Espana.

Pay close attention to the bassoons at the 1:31 mark -- that's got to be one of the best orchestral passages featuring the bassoons ever. Also of note is the big passage at the 3:35 mark, when Chabrier writes a sparkling passage in which it feels as though the sections of the orchestra are playing in two different time signatures.

I was fortunate enough to play this work in college. It's one of the most infectious pieces I know -- its rhythms, constantly dancelike and always just slightly off-kilter with the beat never quite where we expect it, are pure delight, and there are wonderful melodies at play here as well. I love this piece.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

But what about Brett Fah-vruh?

So, Brett Favre has made up his mind now. Really. He's gonna play. His mind's made up. He's now a Minnesota Viking.

Well...maybe I get surprised, but I can't see how this works out well at all for Minnesota. Favre has had one good season lately (the year before last), but despite his "Iron Man" tendency to not miss starts, his physical effectiveness has gone down steadily, year by year, until last year he managed to lead the NFL in interceptions thrown. Passing accuracy and arm troubles generally aren't the kinds of problems that start to reverse themselves as quarterbacks with enormous amounts of mileage reach the age of 39 and their sixteenth or seventeenth season in the league. I'm thinking that a lot of eyes popped in the Midwest today, and the eyes that did the most popping were the defensive backs at Bears, Lions and Packers' training camps. They've all got to be salivating at the prospect of watching Favre for another year as he runs around and lobs grapefruit-like passes out of his refusal to accept that he just can't make the throws he could make ten years ago when he was already four years past his Super Bowl title.

What does Favre bring to the Vikings? At this point, I have no idea. Yes, he brings fierce competitiveness. But that's about it, I think. He's not a quarterback who is anywhere near the top of his game. He brings a larger-than-life persona that could well undermine the efforts of a relatively new coach. And he delays, by a year and maybe two, the Vikings' development of whoever they think their quarterback of the future is going to be. By bringing him in, it's clear that they've pretty much given up, rightly or wrongly, on Tarvaris Jackson. But with Favre there now, he takes up a valuable year or two while the Vikes have a pretty good defense in place and a hell of a running back. If Favre plays both the years on his contract, by the time he leaves the Vikings will again be in transition. As a "win now" type of move, signing Favre doesn't seem like the best idea in the world.

The Vikings were 10-6 last year, while Favre's Jets were 9-7. Now, I think that the Vikes are better than the Jets, so the question becomes: does Favre make the Vikings better? I'm just not sure that he does. Maybe one more win, for 11-5. I don't think that Favre makes the Vikes a team that can really contend with the conference's best teams (the Giants and Eagles). So: with Favre, I think the Vikings have put themselves in a tough spot. By going for the old veteran, they've committed themselves to a very narrow window of opportunity for winning, and they've done it with a guy who just doesn't seem like much of a winner anymore. I don't expect that this will backfire to the tune of a 4-12 season and the franchise in shambles, but I do think that this will translate to 10-6 for a couple of years and then some rebuilding once the current defense gets too old to be effective.

In short, while I'm not sure that Vikings fans will come to hate the Favre signing (it'll never come close to replacing the Herschel Walker trade in the Vikings' annals of poorly-considered personnel moves), I do think that in five years Vikes fans will look back on the Favre era much as Bills fans now look back on the Flutie era: a couple of pleasant and maddening years that didn't amount to much.

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

For football fans! What kind of game do you prefer: a tense and dramatic low-scoring affair featuring great defenses and a final score like 10-7? or an offensive shoot-out with great catches and runs and a final score like 44-37?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

An odd observation....

I'm watching an old episode of The A-Team right now, and a character, referring to the episode's villain, just said: "Yeah, he's a real scuzz."

Wow. I remember the noun "scuzz" and its adjective, "scuzzy", from my youth. I haven't heard the word "scuzz" in probably twenty-five years.

No, I have no point here.

Lying Locke

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch was pretty strongly hyped when it came out a few years ago; I remember seeing it mentioned on nearly every SF and Fantasy site I tend to frequent. I made mental notes to read it, and then kept forgetting about it...and forgetting about it...and forgetting about it...until I finally picked up a copy when I remembered it one day whilst standing in Borders. I read it soon after, and it turns out there was a reason for all the hype: it's a really good book, an adventure story that actually rollicks. I read a lot of adventure tales, and not all of them actually manage to rollick. This one? Yup, it's set at full rollick.

Locke Lamora is a thief who lives in the city of Camorr, which is most reminiscent of Renaissance Venice, with its canals and its tightly-clustered buildings piled atop muddy islands. There are differences, though: the entire city is dominated by structures made of "Elderglass", left behind by some non-human race thousands of years before; the skyline is dominated by five towers of Elderglass that rise over six hundred feet above the rest of Camorr. Alchemy is also practiced in Camorr, alchemy to produce light and to hinder one's enemies and to turn regular animals into docile beasts of burden in a creepy process called "Gentling". Locke Lamora is apprenticed to a guild of thieves, but that guild eventually kicks him out when he unleashes a scheme that ends up costing a couple of his fellow thieves their lives. He falls in with another group of thieves, though, and after he's grown up with the rest of these thieves, he and his friends form their own little thieves' guild, calling themselves "the Gentleman Bastards". Their goal is to get rich by fleecing those already rich, and as the book opens, Locke Lamora is already laying the groundwork for just such a scheme, pretending to be a dealer in highly valuable brandy from a distant kingdom.

However, dark things are afoot in the arrival in Camorr of a mysterious figure called the Gray King. who has his sights set on taking over rule over the entire city's criminal underworld from a man named Barsavi. The Gray King's plans also involve Locke Lamora, for some reason, and Locke ends up in a great deal of trouble before the book is even half done.

It was an interesting choice, using the tropes of high fantasy to tell a caper story like this, and Lynch does it all very well. Sometimes the dialog is a bit hard to accept; I'm sure we've all read bad fantasies where the characters all talk as if they've just been transported from the pages of Sir Thomas Malory to whatever fantasy they're in now. The Lies of Locke Lamora isn't like that. The dialog is earthy, full of expletives, and occasionally - very occasionally – the stuff being said sounds as though it needs to be said with a thick Jersey accent. At times it was a bit jarring, but if you tire of Fat Fantasy novels where everybody talks like Gandalf the White ("Run, Shadowfax, and show us the meaning of haste!"), then you might find pleasure here. The book is a caper story; imagine Ocean's Eleven or The Thomas Crown Affair set in a fantasy world. There are double crosses, secret identities, plots and plans within plans and plots, and at the center of it all are Locke Lamora and his best friend Jean Tannen, frequently charing into situations with no plan whatsoever.

One of an apparent six planned sequels has already come out: Red Seas Under Red Skies. In this book, Locke and Jean arrive at a different city, a wealthy sea town called Tal Verrar, where the world's most exclusive gambling house, the Sinspire, resides. Their plan is to break into the Sinspire's vault and steal its contents. Do they succeed? I'll never tell – but their plans do go awry when they find themselves embroiled in all manner of other intrigues at the very political heart of Tal Verrar, a frustrating state of affairs for two men who just want to steal lots of money from the rich. The plot of Lies is twisty enough, but Red Seas is, if anything, even twistier: the plot seems to lurch about every ten or twenty pages, so that what starts off as a caper story becomes a political thriller and then, about halfway through, a nautical tale and a pirate story. The plots and double-crosses come fast and furious in Red Seas, right up the very last page, which leaves our heroes in a bit of trouble whose resolution in the third book (still forthcoming) will, I hope, be as fascinating and enjoyable as what has gone before. I can't wait.

(Red Seas does not necessarily assume that the reader has already read Lies, but it does help. The book's opening is probably much more effective if one knows something of the history of Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen.)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sentential Links #181

Warning: these are all political, except for the last one. I'm in one of those moods.

:: I'm sorry to have to say this, but I really hope the teabag woman who thinks this is a great system, loses her health insurance and has to go get her health care in an animal stall. If she's lucky enough to even get that. If she believes charity health care in soaking wet tents once a year is a mark of a well functioning market, she is so stupid she deserves it.

I'm not sure anymore if some of these people are even human.

:: When Teabag Joe and Jane show up at a health care town hall, they garner sympathy because they look like a regular frustrated person. Whatever their message is, it gains credibility because they’re not a career politician, they’re wearing shoes that don’t match their pants, and they seem genuinely angry about something. And in a debate about our personal health, that goes a long way. And this makes me wonder - why has nobody in the vaunted Obama operation, nobody holding any of these town halls, tried to contextualize their positions by using actual real people who want or need universal health insurance? Michael Moore found a bunch of people - sympathetic people - and I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but he’s fat. (Remember when Bill Clinton made the GOP look like a bunch of tools at the State of the Union by citing one of his invited guests, a guy who had aided the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing and saved lives on that day, and then after the guy's unanimous standing ovation, dropped the fact that the guy was now broke because he worked for the government and the GOP had just shut down the Federal government? Yeah, good times. I'll never forget the look on Trent Lott's face when he did that. Maybe Obama will figure this out eventually.)

:: There are only two outcomes here. Either we get very good at spotting and stopping these attempts at a brownshirt takeover the minute they crop up; or they're going to get very good at public intimidation, and keep ratcheting it up further toward outright violence and goon rule. That's how it's going to be for the rest of this administration. The sooner we resign ourselves to the zero-sum nature of this fight, the sooner we can get on with getting good at it.

:: There’s a bizarre love triangle among the Republican party, the media, and the lunatic right-wing fringe, and it’s not going to end well for anyone involved. The Republican party is dooming itself to long-term irrelevance by alienating the young and non-white; they may even be setting themselves up for primary challenges from nutjobs. The media is losing what credibility it has by parroting teh crazy. And the lunatic right-wing fringe is headed for an inevitable series of “Sister Souljah” moments when Republicans wise up and realize they have to denounce the teabaggers.

:: Nixon, after becoming Ike's vice president, said Republicans "found in the files a blueprint for socializing America" in the White House. Civil rights leaders were accused of being a Soviet plot. The Civil Rights Act was believed to be intended to "enslave" whites. A prominent right-wing radio host insisted that JFK was building a political prison in Alaska to detain critics of the administration. When FDR proposed Social Security, the conservatives of the era not only screamed about "socialism," but told the public Roosevelt would force Americans to wear dog tags.

These were all fringe, radical arguments at the time, and were ignored as insane by responsible journalists. No one in America would turn on the evening news or pick up the morning paper and read about pathetic right-wing conspiracy theories. If Fox News existed at the time, Sean Hannity would be doing special reports on each of these unhinged ideas, and Americans would be told that they were worthy of discussion.

:: “Let me get this straight: they show up at public events, try to derail real discussion of the issues by being loud, belligerent assholes, and get on the news? Unbelievable. They stole my bit.” – Westboro Baptist Church minister and flamboyant gay activist Fred Phelps

“Jesus Christ, Mom. I’m like a year old and have downs syndrome and even I know that’s bullshit.” – Trig Palin

“Iz in ur Oh-Arr, yoothanizin ur gramma.” – Universal Health Kitteh

“They’re actually having a debate about this? What the fuck is wrong with them?“ – Pretty much every non-US citizen in the entire world

:: This was not a museum: it is a haunted house. It is a carnival ride. It shows throughout in the layout — the rubes are supposed to be shuttled through efficiently, get their little thrills, and exit so the next group can make the trip. If they'd had a few million more, I imagine they would have invested in tracks and little cars and turned it into the Creation Ride. The creators of this place wouldn't recognize a museum if they woke up in the middle of the Smithsonian on a bed of museum maps with a giant sign saying "MUSEUM" in front of their faces and an army of docents shouting directions at them. They seem to have gotten all their information about how a museum works by visiting Disneyland. (There's probably some kind of correlation between the state of the health care debate and the fact that the Creation "Museum" is doing bang-up business.)

:: Science fiction is eternal; it is the demigod cousin of literature itself, a cat with an infinite amount of extra lives. Long live science fiction. (Huzzah!)

All for this week.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sunday Burst of Weirdness

Oddities abound...but I didn't see many of them, as I spent less time online this past week owing to a minor cold that inconvenienced me a bit. Oh well.

:: But here's a site that aggregates Star Wars-related photographic oddity. This cracked me up:

As did this:

And how about "Silent Era Star Wars":

And then there's this:


:: On a non-Star Wars vein, here's a ridiculously bad-ass looking hand tool. No, I won't get one. The price tag is really steep and I'd really not have a use for it, but still -- that's hard core toolage!

More next week.

Seeking the Middle?

UPDATE: A correction is posted below.

An interesting discussion is going on at over an old issue: should one make decisions on novels to read on the basis of the authors' political views? Specific examples cited over there are Paul di Filippo, who recently edited an anthology book of "Mindblowing Science Fiction" stories whose main qualification for story selection was that the tales be "Mindblowing" -- and yet the book included not a single story by a female SF author, and author John C. Wright, whose views on homosexuality are just slightly more tolerant than saying they should be stoned at dawn in the town square.

[Wright has since deleted a LiveJournal post of his that started some kind of free-for-all, but just that one; for a good notion of what kinds of things Wright believes, check out an older post of his in which he offers predictions for the next fifty years. Specifically, prediction #2 is entertaining: "The sexual revolution will be recognized as a complete failure. Monogamy and chastity will return as norms of behavior. Homosexuality will be reclassified as a mental disease." (Emphasis mine.) And in comments, when someone notes that Wright's predictions all seem pretty downbeat, he objects that Prediction #2 is a positive one. So he looks forward to the day when gays are once again seen as lunatics.]

The conversation ensuing in comments is interesting to follow. For one thing, it's pretty civil. This is something I've thought a lot about over the years. After all, I love Richard Wagner's music a great deal, and there's no getting around the fact that Wagner was a shit. And while it's tempting to say that the politics and the art don't have to exist at the same time, many times they do; in Wagner, for instance, one can't escape the man's deification of All Things Teutonic. (Now, whether or not his personal antiSemitism is on display in his music has been debated for years, and I'm not equipped to weigh in on one side or the other in that debate.) But there's something about Wagner that makes it a bit easier to get past all that, and that something is simply that Wagner lived in the 19th century, when views such as his, as odious as we see them now, were much more mainstream. It always seems a bit unwise to hold people of the past to higher moral standards on all issues. No one condemns the Founding Fathers for not realizing, right at the outset in 1787, that slavery should have been ended and blacks made citizens with all the rights and privileges thereof.

But it's harder with those of our own time, isn't it? Now, I've only tried to read one of John C. Wright's books, and I bounced off it, five or six years ago. Many times when I bounce off a book I'll make a note to return to it sometime later. Maybe I do get back to it, maybe I don't -- but in all honesty, my acquaintance with Wright's views as I've seen his LiveJournal here and there over the last couple of years makes it highly unlikely that I'll ever bother. But it's simply not the case that Wright's a conservative and I only read liberal authors; I love the work of Michael Flynn, who is certainly conservative. I felt no problem buying books published by Baen Books despite Jim Baen's politics. Mark Helprin writes wonderful novels, and he's a guy with whom I agree on approximately nothing. However, again likewise, I have no problem deciding that I loathe a writer's views to the point where I simply won't read them. That's why I have not read a single word of Orson Scott Card since his How to Write Science Fiction, which I read fifteen years or so ago. I used to own a copy of Ender's Game that I intended to read sometime, but I started bumping that down the priority list as I heard more and more about his loathing of gays as well. (It's not all about writers who are homophobic, though. What finally made me put Ender's Game on eBay without reading it was a global warming denialist screed Card wrote in which he referred to former Vice President Gore as "pond scum".)

So what's the difference here? Why will I read Flynn and Helprin but not Wright or Card? For one thing, there are degrees of belief. I doubt Flynn or Helprin are anywhere near as far to the right as Wright or Card are. More than that, there's the way writers go about things. I once in a while find myself looking at a Card essay online, and I see the rantings of an arrogant prick. Same thing with Wright: his LiveJournal posts fill me with the sense of being in the presence of someone who is so self-impressed as to leave me looking for the nearest available exit. In a lot of ways, it goes to behavior more than the actual views, and this can actually happen on both sides of the specturm. It can, and it does. There is a film music record producer whose CDs I steadfastedly refuse to buy, because even though I agree with him across the board politically, I find his persona as I've encountered it online to be insufferably boorish.

Some people will point out that I may be missing out on some great books by so banishing authors from my bookshelves, and they're right. The thing is, though, that I'm a human being, which means that I am mortal and thus will, by definition, miss out on the vast majority of great books that exist. I see no reason to not apply some standards once in a while as to the great books I intend to allow to pass by. Ditto the afore-mentioned music producer. Sure, his CDs are highly regarded. I'll survive without them. I've more than enough music to keep me occupied. On a similar vein, in that comment thread author Nick Mamatas makes the point that not buying an author's books on the basis of their views will in no way hurt their royalty statement. Sure, that's true, but so what? Whether I'm in agreement with them or not, I am under no obligation one way or the other to give them my money. It's not unlike my general refusal to shop at Wal-Mart. I've no illusion whatsoever that Wal-Mart is hurting one bit because I am not contributing to their revenue.

However, sometimes I might find myself feeling a tad hypocritical about these kinds of issues. I find Mel Gibson's views on just about everything to be nauseating, perhaps even as nauseating as I find John C. Wright's, but I still watch his movies. (At least, in theory I do. I haven't seen Apocalypto because it just doesn't look like something that interests me, but I did watch The Passion of the Christ, with which I was less than impressed.) What's the difference here? Maybe it's that movies constitute a smaller investment of time than a book does. And there's probably also the fact that I was a fan of Gibson's twenty years before I learned just how far to the right he actually is. That can be a factor: familiarity with a person before learning what their warts are tends to make the warts less troublesome. One of the most memorable family friends from my years as a youth was a man who was warm, loving of his friends, wickedly funny...and a bigot who could get really bad sometimes if he drank too much. It happens.

Avoiding movies or teevee shows that feature actors with whom I disagree has always struck me as being a faulty premise. There are just too many people to keep track of, then; that way really does strike me as being limiting in my choices. I don't stop watching Tom Cruise movies because he's a Scientologist any more than I avoid Gary Sinise because he's conservative. There are just too many actors to keep track of, and ultimately, who cares?

UPDATE and CORRECTION: Serves me right for not totally fact-checking myself. A reader points out, in comments, that Paul Di Filippo did not edit the "Mindblowing SF Tales" book; rather, he appears in it as a writer and posted a defense of it online which then triggered lots of spirited discussion. Thanks to "Phy" for setting me straight, and I of course regret my error. Oops and apologias!

Ye Gods

The more I think about it, the more glad I am that the Democrats didn't nominate John Edwards last year. Boy Howdy, what a piece of work that guy has turned out to be.

Friday, August 14, 2009

How long until George Lucas reboots Star Wars?

UPDATE: Broken link fixed.

Apparently Bryan Singer is on the cusp of directing a Battlestar Galactica movie. That doesn't seem terribly noteworthy, since the show just ended -- except that the movie, by all reports, won't have anything to do with the recently completed show! Instead it will draw upon the original material for the 1978 Glen A. Larson show.

So a show that was on thirty years ago, and was already rebooted into a very successful show that ran for several years, will now be rebooted again into a movie franchise. Huh?!

Look, I like Bryan Singer, actually. I didn't care for The Usual Suspects, but everything I've seen since then by Singer has been pretty good. (And yes, I include Superman Returns.) And I'm all for explodey-spaceshippy space opera goodness on the big screen. But this "rebooting" craze has to hit a wall at some point, doesn't it? Isn't there any impetus anymore to come up with something new?