Author Archive

The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson (review)

July 24, 2008

I’m never disappointed when I read Stephenson.  It often takes me far longer than normal but his novels tend to be LONG.  Though some long novels can drag, his are always (or at least to this point have been) quite enjoyable.  I picked up The Diamond Age because I saw it in reference to cyborgs in general or on a syllabus for a course related to cyborgs.  I cannot remember which.

The novel set in the not too distant future deal with a lot of nanotechnology (much of which operates in the bloodstream — this is even a huge facet of the climax) but I am not sure how I would work it in a discussion of cyborgs.  The novel itself almost seems post cyberpunk though I am probably not using that term entirely correctly.  Set mostly in Asia (a hallmark of cyberpunk) there is an area that represents the gritty dirty sexy parts of typical cyberpunk.  However, there are also groups such as the Neo-Victorians and the Celestrial Kingdom (traditional Confucians).  These groups known for rigid social order and rules and seem to be a backlash to the anarchy of cyberpunk “street.”

The novel traces the story of a young girl (Nell) from the “bad part of town” who lucks into a technologically-advanced “book” which is designed to not only teach traditional subjects but also to allow for free-thinking.  The book, designed for one aristocratic child, also ends up getting distrbuted to the intended little girl as well as the designer’s daughter and thousands of young Chinese girls.  It is less concerned with the other recipients focussing most of the story on Nell — and traces her journey as it were.

The book is beautifully written and rich (as a lot of his stuff is).  While plots for many novels are transparent with clear-cut villains, problems, routes to success, etc, this novel is more organic in that the reader is drug along numerous subplots without necessarily being hit over the head with or even in some cases privy to the larger thrust of the book.  Thus, it has many detailed focused points, explorations, questions without, for me anyway, coalescing into a central theme as it were.  Except maybe the themes of parenting and coming of age.  How does one do it?  Can a human parent be replaced with technology? How much and how specifically does environmental context affect the end product?  And, specifically the parenting/raising of women.  This exploration is embedded within most facets of the novel.

I guess what has hung me up is the blurb on the back cover which ends with “Her life — and the entire future of humanity — is about to be decoded and reprogrammed…”  Clearly this line is meant to be read by Don LaFontaine (you know, the movie voice over guy).  This is certainly not the readinng I took away from the book.  Nell’s life is certainly re-programmed but this “entire future of humanity” stuff is just hoo-ey.  That’s right, I wrote hoo-ey.  Are we that troubled that the life and journey of an emotionally and physically abused kid from a broken home is not enough to attract us, the FATE OF THE ENTIRE WORLD must also hang in the balance?

Especially given the story which is anything BUT Victorian in its approach to women.  In a complete turnabout from the conduct and educational book from the 19th century, this book that Nell and the other young women have is empowering — educating them to take control of their destiny rather than be shaped by those more powerful (i.e. patriarchy).  I am not sure if this image appears in the hardcover edition of the book or not, but this illustration by Micah Nolte really captures the novel for me.  It’s a great image.

The novel is quite good, but read it for what it is, not what the Hollywood film of it would be.

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Batman: The Dark Knight (2008)

July 18, 2008

I’ve never really been into watching blockbuster movies on opening day or for that matter going to late night showings.  But, yesterday, proved an exception as some friends and I drove an hour to the nearest decent theater to take in the 12:02 showing of The Dark Knight.

A couple of non-movie observations:

*It felt like I had walked into a high school assembly — as it took me 5 minutes to spot someone in line older than me.   (There were only 2 and only about 5 within 10 years of my age).  That said, the high schoolers were very well behaved during the movie.

*Yes, there were costumes — just a few.  And, the Joker was much more widely represented than his heroic counterpart.  The saddest one of all was the poor kid who showed up in a suit.  Yep, he came not as Batman but as Bruce Wayne.  Although, to be honest, I first thought he had came as Alfred.  There was also the young guy with the SKIN tight white shirt upon which — in magic marker — he had written “Heath Ledger Lives 4-Ever” — what made it complete was, of course, the pack of Marlboro’s stuffed under his sleeve.  Honestly, doesn’t Ledger deserve a better tribute

*If you are curious about any movie opening in the next two years, it is worth going to The Dark Knight so you can see its trailer.  Now, clearly, I am an old man but 18 minutes worth of previews is excessive.  Watchmen looks fantastic (no surprise there) and someone in Hollywood is still bent and determined to make Shia LeBouf an action movie hero of some sort.  I just don’t get it.

OK, now for the actual movie.  Honestly, I felt it was a little too long but mostly because I was in a very uncomfortable seat WAY past my bedtime.  Anything beyond this line will actually contain spoilers so know that you were warned.

(more…)

Man Plus, by Frederik Pohl (review)

July 17, 2008

Perhaps it is a sign of my limited scope, but I am consistently struck by how diverse science fiction authors and readers actually are.  The other day, I learned that a friend of mine with whom I knew I shared an interest in MLB, was also an avid SF guy.  We got to talking — playing the “Have you read/Do you read?” game.  Our game lasted quite a while and we had very little overlap.  One of the authors he had read that I knew by name but not by actual reading experience was Frederik Pohl.

Since one novel by Pohl was already on my list for the summer, I bumped it to the top and read Man Plus (originally published in 1975 and Nebula award winner).  In brief, the novel explores the physiological transformation of an astronaut into a being who can survive on the surface of Mars and by the end of the tale actually does.

It is no doubt heavily influenced by an essay by Nathan S. Kline and Manfred E. Clynes titled “Cyborgs and Space” (1960).  Often credited with the first use of the word cyborg, Clynes and Kline argue that

Altering man’s bodily functions to meet the requirements of extraterrestial environments would be more logical than providing an earthly environment for him in space.

It actually makes logical sense and it is interesting in the intervening 48 years of a space program, it hasn’t been attempted (or not as far as we know).  Man Plus explores this concept by tracing the development of this man into — in the novel’s term — a monster.   As you can see from the cover of the reprint, he looks quite different.  More like a bug or bat than a human.

It is told from the perspective of a first-person plural narrator whose identity is not revealed until the end (and, no, I won’t reveal it that would be cheating).  This “twist” is fairly well done and adds an additional dimension to the question of life, intelligence, morality, etc as they relate to “humanity.”

It is a fast-paced novel that kept me curious about the next bend in the road.  I paid particular attention to its focus on how these biological changes affect the “human” and one of the most interesting of these concerns the eyes.

The astronaut’s eyes have to be replaced and as a result, he can see much more than a normal human (infrared, etc).  However, because the brain does not have the structures to interpret this information, they make changes so that he will not have sensory overload.  The system they use interprets the visual experience into one the man can understand.  One of the Mars experts — who interestingly is also a man of the cloth — questions how the astronaut can make moral decisions when the visual experience is not necessarily accurate or complete.  Is morality the line between man and monster?  Isn’t all perceptions filtered?  It is an interesting question that the novel only sort of answers.  It also goes into questions of masculinity, communication, isolation, etc.

The overarching structure of impending nuclear holocaust is a bit tired for 2008 readers but would have certainly resonated (and clearly did) in 1975.

My only complaint is that since it is not in print, it is not readily available.  Though, I would probably include it in my course, I will probably have to pass because of its availability.  The book ends with our hero on the Mars waiting for more human colonists.  I was compelled enough to look for a sequel which there was in 1994 (co-written with Thomas T. Thomas) — which is also out of print.

Perhaps it was non-fiction and here he is still waiting for company…  🙂

Burning Chrome, William Gibson

July 10, 2008
Not the cover to my book, but cool, no?

Not the cover to my book, but cool, no?

It is always a fun process selecting the next book to read.  For me, it is a bit like opening the cabinet or the fridge for a late afternoon snack.  So many choices but still important to find what will cure that particular craving.  This book, for me, was more a matter of format.  I needed a transportable book that would be durable.  Hello, mass market paperback and William Gibson’s Burning Chromethe collection, which of course included “Burning Chrome” the story.  This collection (or at least my edition of it) was put together after Neuromancer but features stories written prior to it (that is my understanding from the introduction at least).

There are certinaly stories one would expect from the father of the cyberpunk genre — “Johnny Mnemonic,” “Fragments of a Hologram Rose,” “New Rose Hotel” and “Burning Chrome.”

But, the ones that really stuck out for me were the ones that violated expectations (while still of course inhabiting for the most part a Gibsonian reality).

Such as “Dogfight” which tells of one person’s quest to beat a handicapped veteran at a 3D WWI-era aerial combat game — the lengths he goes to to achieve his goal and the effect on both himself and his vanquished opponent.  Quite a fun little story.

Or, “Hinterlands” where the protagonist’s job is to counsel solitary space travellers.  These travellers are sent through a worm hole sort of thing (I don’t recall Gibson ever using that phrase). These travellers return insane and suicidal.  But, because the first traveller returned with a small item that boosted technology significantly, more and more travellers on sent on what is statistically a suicide mission in an effort to gain technological advancements.   Plausibility is not typically what one looks for in SF literature but this picture of humans as interstellar scavengers hoovering up crumbs of technology despite the human cost strikes me as all too grimly realistic.

Like this, but hooked on crack

Of the more mainstream cyberpunk (how that for an oxymoron), I enjoyed JM a great deal, especially the weaponized dolphin — Jones — who is addicted to some narcotic.  I have not seen the Keanu Reeves movie yet and the Jones is enough reason to check it out.   “Burning Chrome” was also quite good.  I’m at a loss for further comment — I like it most because it captures some of the great things about Neuromancer in a short story.

Man, I am way behind; or, here are some thoughts on Asimov, Weaponized Pets, and Iron Man

July 9, 2008

So, in the effort of catching up my writing to my reading, I am going to mash various things together — things, which actually are all connected.  My currently reading (badly outdated) had listed my current reading as Asimov’s Bicentential Man (that’s right, it’s not all about Amazon) and Scalzi‘s The Ghost Brigades. Since then I have re-read William Gibson’s Neuromancer and also added Warren Ellis’s Iron Man: Extremis and Grant Morrison’s WE3.  So as you can see, I stayed busy while I was away.  All of these pieces share a similar focus (to greater and lesser degrees) on the combination of the artificial and the natural.  Hence, they all have cyborgs or some sort.

So, some brief thoughts:

The Ghost Brigades: I covered this briefly in an earlier post but I really enjoyed this sequel to Old Man’s War. And, I want to add more but to be honest I just can’t get started.  The current question I am wrestling with regarding this novel is how much it stands alone.  I am thinking about teaching it this Fall and I am curious if it will be ok by itself or how much prep work from OMW I will have to do.  My sense is that it will be fine.  It seems that Scalzi works in the background information in various place — and quite deftly I might add.  I never felt that..”blah, blah, blah” feeling one sometime gets with sequels when they try to catch readers up.  But, if anyone has not read either and is willing to read TGB first and tell me how much they think it stands alone, I would be eternally grateful.  Ok, not eternally but certainly for a least a semester.

Neuromancer — when I first read this novel, I loved it.  And, then I reread it.  I still felt it was very good.  It actually, in my opinion, suffers from its own success.  So many later works are influenced by (or to put it more harshly are derivative of) this novel that it doesn’t re-read as well as I would have hoped it would.  What was a burning desire for all things Molly in the first read but merely infatuation in the second.  I guess I’ve seen too many similar characters.  It is still a must read to achieve any sense of SF literacy.

“Bicentennial Man”  — Yes, if this sounds familiar, it is because there is a movie adaptation of it.  Yes, the one with Robin Williams.  But, before you run screaming to the next little blurb.  The movie is actually based on the novel The Positronic Man by Asimov and Robert Silverberg, which is itself an adaptation of the novella by Asimov. Although I haven’t read the novel, the essential difference between novella and movie is the love interest plot — in that it is missing from the novella.  Both the film and the novella trace the robot’s journey to be recognized as human by those around him but more importantly legally.  As such, it is a great exploration of what it is that makes us human.  I know it seems a pretty simple question but it gets hairier when we try to actually put it to words.  Assuming we don’t take the easy religious way out and say “soul” — something which while I may or may not believe we have, cannot be seen or in any way measured thus making it entirely possible that the annoying frog croaking in my neighbor’s water garden at the moment may indeed have one too.  Anyway, I won’t spoil the end of the novella but Asimov’s definitions of what legally allows the main character to be human is fairly interesting.

Iron Man: Extremis:  Wow, hat tip to Amy over at Amy Reads for the recommendation of this trade when I was visiting their town back in May.  The basics are that Tony Stark converts the under-structure (they have a specific word but you get the idea) to become part of his body — stored in his bones and emerging through his pores.  It effectively makes Stark a cyborg as the Iron Man suit becomes part of him.  Other than the Stark’s seemingly innocent and definitely mousy long-lost friend is actually the bad guy part of the plot, I really enjoyed the trade.  That “twist” was a little too pat and telegraphed really badly with the whole — “it takes two keys to open the vault” line.  But, what it did really well was engage the question of military applications for funding and the importance of the military in funding issues — making it not a version of but closely enough related to the recent, excellent movie to complement each other well.

We3:  I read the first issue of this trade way back when it first came out and I put it down (for dialogue reasons if memory serves).  But this wacky re-envisioning of The Incredible Journey as three common pets (a dog, a cat, and a cute wittle bunny) escape from their research facility where they have been cybernetically weaponized and take the journey home.  Again, an interesting examination of the role of military and technology and the multiple implications of that research on human both in terms of using the device and being on the more business end.  My only concern was the quite graphic nature of the art. I certainly get that that is part of the point.  Cute little fido ripping some dude’s head off is part of the satire.  But, I am not sure how it will fly in the classroom.

Believe it or not…..

July 8, 2008

Photo from Dallas Morning News

….these two fellas are not brawling.  Believe it or not, its two guys playing baseball.  Believe it or not, this guy calls it bush league.  In the top of the 8th inning of last nights Rangers v. Angels game, Jeff Mathis, Angels catcher hitting a torrid .229 on the season, attempted to run through Rangers catcher Max Ramirez and extend the Angels 9-6 lead.    By the way, for a larger image and other game photos, go to the Dallas Morning News.  Kudos to Milton Hinnant for getting a fantastic shot.

Now, before I am accused of being some namby-pamby wimp who believes that baseball is a non-contact sport, let me clarify that I am all for a good break up play – even from light-hitting catchers (to be fair, Mathis had gone yard last night before the collision).  But, forearm to the throat?  Seriously?  I mean, Come on, dude, at least make it LOOK like you are just trying to get to the plate.  Hitters are so protective of themselves when pitchers throw up by the head (look no further than Coco Crisps’ recent antics), should collisions be any different?

Photo by Matthew West (Boston Herald)

Photo by Matthew West (Boston Herald)

Happily, the baseball gods smiled on ole Max as he not only held on to the ball but got up and threw to the third for the double-play.  Guess  ole Jeff throws a forearm about as well as he normally hits.  Maybe next time, she should try the A-Rod slap (see below).  Honestly, I have come to expect nothing less from Scioscia and the Angels.  Too bad, too, I really loved Scioscia the player.  But, first place or not, his teams have always managed to strike a heady combination of bush league and intolerance.  So, Jeffie, tonight, when you get one near the earhole or more preferably in the numbers, break the Angels’ mold and take your base (and your medicine) like a big boy.

Vandercook Goodness

July 3, 2008

 

Ok, first off, sorry for the brief absence.  Combination of things and sadly none of them interesting.  To you, anyway.  I mark my return by sharing with you all my new toy.  A Vandercook #1 proofing press built in 1939 and previously owned and operated by graphic arts company in the midwest.     

It’s my new baby.  Like Pseudonym’s impending real baby (speaking of which dude, you should really get some sleep now and….go see movies, like every day, and and and boy you are gonna hate diapers, especially once they start eating meat — that last one was serious, it gets really bad when they hit meat).  Anyway, like I was saying before the unsolicited advice, like real babies, this baby costs needs a lot of upkeep and extra stuff.  Ink, brayers, etc.  But once that has all been assembled.  I will be in business, metaphorically speaking.  I am sure when I actually start printing I will share some of my work here as well.  Until then, enjoy a view of my new press.

 P.S. This picture was taken before I actually dusted it.  It looks even better now.

Covering Covers

June 21, 2008

Ok, so on the heels of my post on Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, I got to thinking about covers again.  Seems to be a theme, no?  Anyway, I put a lot of value in covers.  They are part of the paraphenalia through which we read the books themselves.  The old saying to not judge a book by its cover is a saying because we always do.  In fact, it is impossible to follow the saying.  Whether we like it or not, the cover ALWAYS conditions our response to and reading of the book. Of course the cover is not alone.  The paper, the weight, the smell, etc — any aspect of the material book affects our reading of it whether or not we choose to acknowledge it. 

With that said, I wanted to talk briefly about Old Man’s War covers.  The novel originally appeared in 2005 with this cover: 

 I really like this cover — from the elderly spacepeople to the Adonis-like body decanting in the background.  We don’t typically think of our heroes as graying but here they are.  I also particularly like how the background figures are staring out directly at the reader while the larger figure in the foreground — our hero — looks off cover with a raised inquisitive eyebrow.  He’s not concerned with the reader but intent on studying the object of his focus.  Admittedly, I am curious about the woman’s outstretched forearms with palms (one that we can see) opened and up in an almost supplicative gesture.  It is interesting.  It makes me want to know more.  Specifically, what he is looking at and preparing to do.   It is my understanding that  Scalzi commissioned this original art from Donato Giancolo.

 Also in 2005, the trade paperback was released with this cover.  John Harris designed this second cover and has designed the covers for the subsequent books in the series.  So there is certainly a consistency across the series (definitely a good thing).  I also think that this cover is fairly attractive.  But, for me, it doesn’t measure up to the first one.  Perhaps it is the human element — such a large part of the novel for me.  Also, while I find this one attractive, it is also fairly generic.  It would be any number of planets with any number of ships in any number of fictional universes.  This is not a knock on Harris since I find the image itself to be great.  But, from this cover, I would expect something focussed mainly on ship-to-ship combat rather than planetside ground war.

 Scalzi, himself, discussed covered recently on his blog where he notes the importance of consistency and quotes Tor art directory who points out that the function of covers is to convince booksellers to buy the book.  That is an interesting wrinkle in that I think most of us assume that it is the customer who is foremost in the minds of publishers.  Booksellers actually make sense but we cannot discount the importance of the customer as well.  I get that Donato may have been cost-prohibitive for all of the books but it would have been a consistency that I think would have benefited the series.  Scalzi’s writing and Internet presence is strong enough that his books would probably sell quite well with blank covers but when I pull these books off the shelf I would like to see a more visually interesting cover.

As a quick aside, there are a number of alternate covers for the novel on foreign language editions and the limited edition published by Subterranean Press. I don’t want to clutter up with all the images, but go look for them, some of them are quite attractive. 

I don’t buy books based on covers but if I did, I would certainly go with the first cover before the second.  What do you think?

 (And this is still to say nothing of the font….)

Old Man’s War, (John Scalzi) and sequels…

June 19, 2008

So, I just finished re-reading John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War — I initially read it a couple of years ago and was rereading it in preparation to read the sequel (which I am now currently doing), The Ghost Brigades.  Not only are they fun reading, they also engage cybernetic issues as all the characters have been modified both genetically and technologically.  I’m a big fan of John’s work and his blog, Whatever so I was a bit nervous re-reading the novel.  I’m glad to say that it didn’t disappoint and thoroughly withstood a re-reading. 

I find that it engages issues that I am currently interested in quite well — particularly what makes us human specifically and, how technological/cybernetic enhancements affect those definitions?   It explores them without preaching a particular position or ideology or being too heavy handed.  It also manages to engage these issues while also maintaining a quite narrative flow (just a few moments of boggy exposition) and being quite funny.  If you are not already familiar with his work and you like a) good writing b) science fiction and/or c) either Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Haldeman’s The Forever War, you will also enjoy Scalzi’s fiction. — and his blog. 

The characters are well-developed but they all share a general snarkiness that while I find amusing blends them together in a way.  This is not to say that the characters are not unique because they are.  It’s merely that this shared quality seems a bit pervasive in the ‘verse. 

I liked the main character — Perry — enough to be disappointed that he doesn’t appear (or at least hasn’t yet) in the second book.   But, don’t confuse that with disappointed in the sequel itself.  It explore the issues of humanity and technology even more in-depth that the first novel and does everything a sequel should — it has enough of the familiar to please the readers and is a different enough novel to not be merely doing the same thing over.  Sequels are in many ways harder to pull off than the first novel.  Think of the long list of excellent SF books that were followed by less than stellar follow-ups.  Dune Messiah anyone?   Other SF that you didn’t like the sequels to?

 

Soon, I will be derivative

June 14, 2008

Ok, the title to this post is a little harsher than I actually feel but I am sticking with it.  Austin Grossman’s Soon I will be Invincible while a brisk entertaining read in an attractive book ultimately left me wanting.  I would still recommend it as a good summer read, particularly if you like superheroes.  While it did some things really well, it wasn’t all I had hoped it would be. 

This disappointment is not all of Mr. Grossman’s fault.  As I mentioned previously, I am looking for explorations of cyborgs for a project I am working on in another identity.  I was hoping this would be a novel that would provide some grist for the mill.  It doesn’t.  While Fatale is a cyborg, the discussions of the effect these cybernetic enhancements have on her and her definition of humanity are there but only really superficially discussed.  The interesting aspects of her personality — her insecurity around the other superheroes — seems to stem more from other notions than from artificial systems.  If anything, she sees them as inferior to the magic or other origin stories of the team.  She still feels like the “normal” tourist that she was before the enhancements.  Even the revelation that Dr. Impossible was responsible for making her is never utilized to its full potential.  The pitch is there; the novel just watches it go by. 

Throughout the novel, Grossman slowly reveals different origin stories leaving us in the dark.  The mysterious Lily (sometime girlfriend of Dr. Impossible) comes near the end when it is revealed that she used to be Erica — intrepid reporter and sometime girlfriend of Dr. Impossible’s nemesis, Corefire.  Sounds kinky, right?  Well, it ain’t.  Mostly because somehow I missed the fact that Erica was even missing.  It was a neat twist but seeing how I didn’t know Erica was missing, her appearance was merely neat. 

Oh, and I hate to spoil the novel but mistreating smart but socially awkward classmates will result in their desire to destroy the world.  Seriously?  I thought much of Dr. Imp’s perspective was refreshing in his approach.  He saw himself as expectional but also quite normal.  But, he’s evil because he was picked on by people prettier and smarter?  Not only is this a common trope in fiction; it has all too often become a common yet tragic trope in real life.  Is evil EVER the villain’s fault any more?  Can we no longer have evil people who are really evil?

One last derivation comes in the origin story of Regina (queen, get it?) who claimed to be a queen from Elfland.  She claims that she along with three other children were monarchs of a fantasical dimension “populated by humans, elves, and talking animals” Then we learn that he story is very close to a children’s book called Four Children in Elfland (wow, what  a terrible title but then again i guess The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was already taken!).  We also find out that one of them is a “high king.”  Other obvious links I will leave for you to discover. 

Now I honestly believe that Mr. Grossman is too smart to think that he could pass this off as original so it must be an intentional allusion.  But, to what end?  It almost seems to be there merely as a wink-wink in-joke.  The most significant thing of the episode is that Regina (and her supposedly powerful scepter) seem to be fakes but it is not entirely clear.  So, it doesn’t even settle the question of whether it was only imaginary and it lacks all of the allegorical power of C. S. Lewis. 

On its website, it claims to be an “outrageous adventure with a literary bent in the tradition of WATCHMEN” and that it is a “smart moving take on love, ambition, secret identity, and those old standbys truth and justice.”  For me, it was none of those things or at least not consistently.  That said, I still would recommend it as a fun, fast-paced read.