Monday, May 19, 2014

The Master: Most Pathetic Big Bad Ever?

So I've been re-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 1 with Jeff, and enjoying it quite a lot. I think he is too, but he's not enjoying it quite as much as I hoped. There are some parts that are genuinely scary, usually the Monster of the Week, like the jackal-possessed children and the smokin-hot teacher that's actually a praying mantis, but honestly the first season is pretty ridiculous, and the vampires are the least scary part. At the pinnacle of unscariness is The Master, of whom I must ask: is he the most pathetic big-bad ever?

Here's a typical plotline involving The Master: he gets some supposedly super-strong and scary vampire to go and kill Buffy, or to facilitate some plan to escape the hand-wavy (literally) stuff that keeps him locked inside his lair for some reason. Buffy kills or defeats them, occasionally with the help of Angel, and TM has a screaming temper tantrum like a 3 year old. He's supposed to be like 1000 years old, but he has less maturity than the Chosen One, or whatever he's calling the 9-year-old vamp who is somehow supposed to help him escape. Boss Hogg and Roscoe P. Coltrane posed more danger to the Dukes of Hazzard than this guy poses to Buff. Cordelia is like 1000 times scarier than this guy.

While I'm on the subject, it is also more ridiculous than ever at my age that a 240-year-old Angel would fall madly in love with a 16 year old Buffy. Although this led to a pretty funny conversation with Jeff, in which he said that Angel looked like a teenager. I said that he looked almost thirty, at which he pointed out that so did all the other "teenagers" in the show.

I wonder if I should just skip straight to the season with Spike and Drusilla?

Friday, May 9, 2014

An imagined conversation with an iOS program:

 "Hello, iTunes, I was told I have to talk to you to get some files from my iPad..."

"Welcome to iTunes! I have lots of music that's really easy to download! What do you want to hear? How about Shakira? She has a new album!"

"Yeah, actually I don't want any music. It's just that I was told that you were the only one that could give me access to my iPad files."

"Hmm...files, you want to watch X-Files? That's a TV show. I also have TV shows. Movies, too!"

"No. No, I don't want music, movies or a TV show. It's just that talking to you is the only way to copy..."

[iOS program assumes a stern but loving expression.]

"We don't use that word 'copy' around here. Some people copy things they are not supposed to. We call them 'pirates.' Hey, I know! Why don't you watch Pirates of the Carribean?"

"I'm not copying anything illegal. I want to copy my files, things I made. My documents, my photos..."

"Photos? Oh, I don't deal with photos. You will want to talk to iPhoto for that. This is iTunes. Tunes is another word for music. But we also have movies and TV shows so I see how that could be very confusing for you. Hey, do you want to watch Looney Tunes?"

"Right, but they're all just files. I just want to put my documents on this backup drive."

"Did you say backup? Why didn't you say so before? I can make a backup for you."

"I can do it myself if I can just see my..."

"Do you want me to make a backup? I can make a backup!"

"Umm, okay. Make a backup."

"Okay! That will be thirty minutes!"

[IOS program  goes in a room and closes the door.]

"Wait! Can't you just..."

[IOS program looks out the door.]

"I'm backing up your files. Do you want me to stop backing up your files? Because then you might lose them all."

"Um, okay, no."

[IOS program closes the door.]


"Did you finish backing up my files?"

"Yes! Backup complete!"

"Great! Can I see the files please?"

"You don't need to see them. They're backed up. Nothing to worry about."

"I know. I mean I need to get at them. Where are my files?"

"They're all backed up, don't you worry."

"I believe you. But I want to work with them."

"You want me to put them back on the iPad?"

"No! I can already see them on the iPad. I want to work with them on another computer. I want to put them on another drive."

"Drive, drive, here we go! Do you want to watch Drive, starring Ryan Gosling?"

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Westeritis: A dangerous new epidemic in fantasy fiction?

So I was incredibly excited to read Elizabeth Bear's new book The Steles of the Sky, the third book in the Eternal Sky trilogy. Since I've begun it, however, I have found that I just can't get into it at all. I'm sticking with it and hoping I'll get over it, but it's a real slog and I keep putting it down for more engaging things, like Clash of Clans. The problem is, there are just too many storylines and each one is too complicated, so I can't keep track of who's who. It may not be fair, but I am tempted to blame George RR Martin.

Anyone who's either read the Game of Thrones books or watched the TV series knows that you practically need a spreadsheet to keep track of all the characters. If you've read the books and you watch the show with someone who hasn't, you'll find they keep asking you, "wait, who is that again?" I haven't watched all the shows, just part of the first season, and when I read recaps of them I don't remember half the people they're talking about.

Is it fair to say that Bear is imitating Martin in trying to balance all these storylines? Does the Eternal Sky trilogy have a case of Westeritis? Certainly it's not that simple. Martin was far from the first person to make fantasy series that sprawl all over the place. But perhaps if the world of Westeros hadn't set the example her editors might have told her to trim things back a bit.

One might say that this kind of thing works for someone like Martin, but not as well for other authors. But honestly is it true that it even works for him? The main storyline is incredibly engaging but it's hard to care about every single one of his characters. This was revealed starkly in A Dance With Dragons, his most recent of the series, which disappointed a lot of readers by focusing entirely on what most people would consider secondary characters and giving us little time with the people we want to know the most about. Part of Bear's TSoTS's book's problem is that it's been a long time since I read the previous book and I don't remember who everyone is. I anticipate a similar problem when Martin finally stops giving us dribs and drabs of The Winds of Winter and finally puts the book out.

For other fantasy authors overcome by the urge to fantastic sprawl with countless pov characters, I prescribe a two aspirin and a dose of Patrick Rothfuss, whose Name of the Wind is as sophisticated and complex a fantasy book as there is out there with only one pov character. The third book of the trilogy is not coming for a while, but I will have no trouble remembering who Kvothe is.

Monsters, anonymous: Helene Wecker's The Golemn and the Jinni

Must we be who we are?

We like to think we make choices all through our lives, but mostly we make the same choice over and over again. So many of our inclinations are baked into us from before we can remember, and we either surrender to our nature or struggle against it our whole lives. In Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni this dilemma faces not only the eponymous monster protagonists, but the Jewish and Syrian immigrants of turn-of-the-century New York they find themselves among. 

Chava, a golem, was made to be the obedient and faithful wife of a European Jewish man named Rotfeld. But Rotfeld died less than a day after bringing her to life on a boat to America, so she soon finds herself alone in the Jewish community on the Lower East Side. Her nature is to serve and obey, and without a master she is assaulted by the needs and wants of everyone around her. She is only saved when the kindly rabbi Avram Meyer recognizes what she is and brings her home.

Ahmad, a Jinni, springs from a lamp when it is repaired by the tinsmith Boutros Arbeely in the now-vanished Little Syria in the West Village. After more than a millennium of imprisonment under circumstances he can't recall he finds himself in a weakened state, bound by an iron band around his wrist to an unknown master. This goes against his nature, which is to drift in freedom above the desert, with no allegiance to anyone. 

Every monster in a book is at least partially a metaphor for something else. Godzilla was partially the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Lestat was partially a gay man in the time of AIDS. Chava and Ahmad are partially newcomers to America, dropped in a bustling city that is only a little bit stranger to them than to the thousands of other immigrants around them. Among other things, this book is a well-researched portrait of its time and place, reason enough to enjoy it. 

But every monster should also be a monster, something other than human, and Chava and Ahmad are. Even their names are simply conventions to allow them to relate to the humans around them; neither being feels especially attached to this central identifying aspect of the human experience. It is a challenge particular to the author of speculative fiction to create a being that is not human but nevertheless possessed of will and desire and needs that engage the reader and drive the plot. And this is Wecker's real strength.

The golem and the jinni have desires and needs, but they are not people's desires. Neither, however, are they stereotypical straightjackets, for each questions and struggles against their urges, just as all the other characters struggle with their own. They each have superhuman strengths and weaknesses, and they fight not to be confined by them. Most of all they live in danger of their inhuman natures being revealed.

Ahmad, a being of fire, can melt metal at a touch, quite a useful skill to the the tinsmith Arbeely. But he has an artistic temperament and struggles against the boredom of day-to-day craftsmanship. His free spirit constantly leads him to put himself in danger of being discovered as an inhuman being, for example when he seduces an uptown socialite.

Chava, a being of clay, has no such urges. She has a boundless work ethic and endurance and puts it to work as a baker and a seamstress. She has to resist the urge to work all night, which would reveal her own superhuman nature. Her drive is to serve and obey anyone, and she instinctively knows what everyone wants. Worse, she has the potential to go into a killing golem rage which would be catastrophic given her superhuman strength.

As the book progresses Ahmad and Chava find their stories intertwined with each others and many other people, among them a demon-possessed doctor, a passionate social worker who has rejected the faith of his rabbi father, a mysterious rabbi-magician and a mute orphan. In addition to being a portrait of its time and place the book engages us in the life of each of its characters, while also plotting them tightly into a fast-moving adventure which unfolds with mysterious secrets about the past of each monster.

The balance that keeps the book alive is that neither of the monsters is entirely bound by their nature, but nor do they entirely escape it. And in that way they are human after all.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

One, two, three... WOW! Those are Fibonacci numbers! (Nymphomaniac)

So I waded through the misanthropy of both parts of Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac, and I now hate humanity almost one tenth as much as von Trier does. But I didn't want to talk about the whole movie, I just wanted to comment on one element that annoyed me spectacularly: the shallow fake intellectualism of the character Seligman.

The movie is basically a sex addict named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recounting her penis-filled life story to an asexual bachelor named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard - no, I'm not looking up the HTML code for that 'a' with the circle on top character) after he finds her beat up in the alley. A central theme of the movie is Seligman saying something supposedly smart and intellectual after Joe recounts some sexual encounter. The problem is, most of the 'intellectual' things he says are in fact really stupid.

An example is when Joe says that the first time she had sex, her boyfriend Jerome humped her three times in her vagina and five times in her ass. "Those are Fibonacci numbers!" says Seligman, and goes on to say some hand-wavy stuff about how they're connected to other mathematical things, like the Golden Ratio and such.

While it's true that they are Fibonacci numbers, this is an incredibly trivial and stupid observation to make when confronted with the numbers '3' and '5,' considering there are only two numbers, too little to imply much of a series, especially when these two numbers are part of countless other significant sets and series (the odd numbers, the prime numbers, the smallest Pythagorean triplet, and so on).

A humanities equivalent would be see the letters 'e' and 'a' and then to say 'Amazing! Did you know those are two letters in the name of the name of Ezra Pound, a writer of poetry, an art form also practiced by the great thinkers Rumi and Samuel Taylor Coleridge?'

It might be a little less idiotic if Jerome had humped her 13 and then 21 times, but I'm not sure that Joe could count that high; stupid as Seligman is he's still an intellectual titan compared to her.

In the second movie, when Joe tells  Seligman she lost her ability to orgasm, he tells her something like "you were just like Xeno, who could never reach his goal!" Even Joe gets annoyed here, though not because she recognizes that this is even stupider than the Fibonacci thing. For her situation to resemble Xeno's Paradox she'd have had to tell him that she got asymptotically closer and closer to an orgasm but never quite reached it (a not unheard of situation). Instead, she lost all sexual sensation whatsoever; she never even crossed the starting line. She's more like the Tortoise in Godel, Escher, Bach and the Charles Dodgson dialogue on which the dialogues on that book are based. But I doubt Seligman could get past the second page of that book.

It has occurred to me that von Trier might be doing this on purpose. Maybe Seligman is supposed to be a fool who is convinced that he is a genius. But I don't think so; the stuff he says about fly-fishing are clearly meant to sound really brilliant. No doubt if I knew more about fishing those would look just as dumb to me.

But did you realize that the first word in 'fly fishing' has three letters, and that three is the first digit in pi?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Boots on the WHAT? Am I the only person who remembers what Russia IS?

I have watched with my jaw agape as people have discussed our options regarding Ukraine over the last few weeks. Republicans, predictably, are saying that this is only happening because Obama is not "tough" enough. From the other side of the aisle, we get this amusing but naive article from The Onion, mocking us for meekly watching Putin's actions.

The readers of the Onion are at least probably young enough to have been born after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But everyone else lived through the same Cold War that I did. So for those too young to remember or those who somehow blocked out the last 50 years of the 20th Century, let me remind you of some simple realities.

When people start saying they don't want "boots on the ground," they are implying that there are some other military options besides all-out war. Drones, cruise missiles, whatever. This is the delusion of an empire that's gone too far. For some reason no one has been explicit about this simple fact: there are no military options regarding Russia. Period.

Russia is not Iraq or Syria. They're not even Iran or North Korea, countries we could at least theoretically invade and conquer, if only at the expense of a bloody invasion that would kill tens of thousands of Americans and devastate our economy, to say nothing of the innocents that would be slaughtered in those countries.

Russia is one of the few countries, if not the only one, that could quite literally wipe America off the map.

At the time of the end of the Soviet Union, Russia had tens of thousands of nuclear "devices" (i.e. missiles and bombs) pointed at our country on a hair-trigger. It's safe to say there are a lot fewer now, and they're not pointing at us (yet). According to Wikipedia they had "only" 2,700 in 2009. This is enough to turn every community in America larger than Moscow, Idaho into a smoking nuclear crater.

Of course we'd destroy them right back. If that makes you feel any better, you'd get along great with this guy:


So, you respond, what are you saying? Just lay back and do nothing?

For practical purposes, yes.

Of course we'll do something. When you can't use military force, the other option is sanctions. We have tried this with Russia before, when they invaded Afghanistan. They didn't work then and they won't work now because we can't get Europe on board.

We can't currently get Europe on board because they are utterly dependent on Russia for Energy. People have pushed Obama to speed up American natural gas exports to Europe. But even if we ramped up this effort enormously, we couldn't come close to matching the 40% of natural gas that Europe currently gets from Russia. And it wouldn't happen for a few years, which would be cold comfort to European leaders watching their citizens riot at their energy bills doubling or tripling.

It's easy to publish funny articles. But unless you have a serious suggestion about what we should do about this, (and vague suggestions about "getting tough" aren't serious), then maybe you should just shut the hell up.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Sheep Among the Wolves: Pierce Brown's Red Rising

If I'd known the plot of Red Rising  I never would have bought it. I'd have called it a knockoff of countless YA post-apocalyptic novels flooding the market and screens right now. The protagonist is 16 years old, and the core of the story is sexy teenagers running around killing each other. Even the marketing of the book compares the protagonist, Darrow, to both Katniss and Ender. (1)

But I don't think anyone would call this book YA. To begin with, though the hero is no older than many YA protagonists, he is no kid. At the beginning of the book he is married and has a job, a real one. He's a Helldiver, basically a badass miner who scrambles around next to a burning hot drill digging helium 3 out of the crust of Mars. He's one of a group of pioneers who are preparing the planet for the coming settlers from Earth, or so he's told. But they aren't treated like heroes, but more like dirt on the bottom of a hypercapitalist caste-driven oligarchy's shoes. Basically, Darrow is a science-fiction version of the narrator of Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons."

Also, the book is exceptionally brutal, even compared to the new string of YA/PA novels out now. The core of the plot is an intramural game of capture the flag with a body count that makes the Hunger Games look like a rounding error, but it's not just a numbers game. It's that the kids playing (and aside from Darrow, they're most certainly kids) act exactly as badly as you'd expect from a bunch of teenagers given weapons, a single-minded objective and absolutely no restraint from adults. There is plenty of torture and mutilation, and though it's always "offscreen" and never glorified or titillating, there is rape. I read my son the whole Hunger Games trilogy, only skipping the most horrible parts at the end of Mockingjay. But though he's several years older than when I read him those books, I wouldn't think of reading (or letting him read) this book at the age he is now.

Most interestingly this series toys with being political in a way that other YA/PA novels don't. Specifically, it is a challenge to the sort of implied classist meritocracy that's the basis of today's neoliberal economy, and the idea that everyone who's sitting on top is sitting there because they are the toughest, smartest, hardest-working people who've been shifted to the place they deserve by our educational and economic filters.

Because the kids that are fighting to the death in the bloody play-war Darrow is engaged in are not the Reds, the bottom rung of the color-coded caste system to which Darrow is born. They are all from the top-ranking Gold class, and they are the top one percent of that class, those aspiring to be the Peerless Scarred, the creme de la creme that rule everyone.

The fact that Darrow is a "sheep in wolf's clothing among the wolves," a Red mole in the Gold camp with the intention of destroying them, is not a spoiler; it's revealed in the prologue. There Darrow hears a Gold warn about the dangers of "Demokracy" and the lie that everyone is equal. The Golds rule everyone else because they're the most powerful and most ruthless. And the Golds themselves will be ruled by the best of the Golds, which will include some of the students he's speaking to -- those that survive.

"But I am no Gold," says Darrow. "I am a Red...He is wrong. None of them will survive."

Darrow is, in some ways, the weakest element of the book. He is very nearly a Mary Sue; at the beginning of the book he's already the toughest, smartest and bravest of the Reds, and in the process of being turned into a Gold he's made even tougher and smarter. His "flaws" are exactly the sort of flaws that make a hero seem more heroic: he's too brave, to righteous, too defiant of false authority.

The complication that allows him to be interesting are based on the dangers of sleeping with the enemy, literally in some cases. Because in penetrating the Gold society Darrow learns that as badly as the Golds treat the Reds, in some ways they treat their own children worse. And though the Golds as a class are horrific, as individual people they are as good and bad as any other people are. He can't help but form bonds and romances with the Golds he was sent to overthrow, and his relationships with them are strained by his memory of where he came from.

This is especially true as he confronts the unfairness of the system that the aspiring Gold children are faced with. The purpose of the play war the kids are put into is to sort out the weakest of their children and turn those that survive into bloody-minded opportunistic killers just like their parents are. There is a psychotic evil logic to this, an antidote to the dangers of falling into decadence that constantly threatens the Golds; indeed, most Golds do fall into decadence and are known as "pixies."

But part of the point of the book is that even such a deadly efficient meritocracy will never overcome the fact that the people in power just can't help but put a finger on the scale. Sometimes it's to favor their own family or political faction, and sometimes it's just to show that they can.

This is demonstrated before Darrow makes his color transition. Early in the book an award of food and luxuries his mining family won fair and square for their work is blatantly taken from them just to prove that the Reds can't really change anything, only the beginning of the cruel injustices we see inflicted on the Reds. The first few chapters, where the vicious inequalities the Reds live under are made explicit, are by far the most engaging part of the book. They also make a promise that the book hasn't yet fulfilled, but might yet in the sequel: the potential to be a truly revolutionary piece of speculative fiction.

By a "revolutionary" piece of spec-fic I don't mean something that revolutionizes speculative fiction. This is an admirable goal but not a rare one; someone wins this prize every five or ten years and then things slip back to how they were. I mean something much rarer and more frightening: a piece of speculative fiction that makes people want to have a revolution.

The closest books I've seen to achieving that goal are China Mieville's "Iron Council" and Cory Doctorow's "Little Brother." Both are in their own way dangerous, but neither quite had the audience to make the difference that they could have, though "Little Brother" still might if it's ever turned into a movie. Both are better books than Red Rising, but a revolutionary book might not be the best written.

Part of the reason that goal is never achieved is that the revolution promised in the beginning of the book doesn't come by the end; this is, after all, the beginning of a trilogy. The next book will be a good sign of where Pierce Brown wants to take this. He could make it into an entertaining thrill ride for Hunger Games fans to graduate into when they're a little too old for the limits on YA, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Or he could make it into something really dangerous.

1. Of course, Ender's Game was never marketed as YA either, but it probably would have been if it had come out now.