Monday, December 31, 2012

California as the world


I really wasn't planning on posting anything today but then I found this amazing picture. Basically this is a map distributed by Paramount in 1927 suggesting stand-in locales for movies. It hits many of my favorite obsessions:


  1. Maps
  2. Movies
  3. History
  4. Created Realities
I would love to do a map of New England with locations that could stand in for the rest of the world. Is that even possible? My sense of this region is that it is in itself a coherent place with its own specific atmosphere but I guess you could find some pretty convincing arctic tundras. Saharan deserts might be a problem, however.

This might be more relevant than it actually appears. We the increasing popularity of augmented reality games (see Ingress), might there not be a push for realistic environments for certain parts of the game. How else would you do an ice level on an AR game without actual ice?

Credit to scientologist2 on r/movies

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Year in Review: Everything Else


To wrap up my review of 2012, I'd like to put down some more personal reflections on what this year has meant to me.

This was the year I finished grad school. I am now on track for professional status at my school and, hopefully, a long career as a middle school history teacher. I arranged my last class, Fiction Workshop, to usher in a major change in focus in my life. No more education courses (for awhile, anyway) and a renewed focus on family and writing. I go to more of my wife's shows and less time shuttling between Salem and home. No other way to put it: life's gotten better.



I've gotten serious about writing. I'm basing this observation on the number of rejections I've been getting. Nothing quite focuses the mind on an endeavor like repeated ego-corroding, soul-searing form rejection letters for queries and submissions. I haven't even gotten to the point where my rejections are particularly helpful, three sentences and a thank you are pretty much the rule. Still, I'm learning a lot about the process and which markets to try later.

I went to a bunch of conventions this year: starting with Arisia 2012 (2013 almost here!) and proceeding through PAX East and Readercon in the Summer. Readercon was particularly notable if for no other reason than I reconnected with an old college friend Chris Holm. A successfully published author, Chris had valuable words of wisdom and more than a little encouragement. I talked up his latest (The Wrong Goodbye) in my book year-end review, check it out if you haven't already. My friend David Nurenberg also got a White Wolf imprint, Silent Knife, published this year, I'll be reviewing that sometime in January. Nothing is more encouraging to me as a fledgling writer than seeing what's possible. Despite the horrific state of the industry, publishers still want books and the reading public still wants authors.

More superficially, this was also the year of Bethesda. Fallout New Vegas in the summer and Skyrim forever. Seriously, these games are review proof. How can you even talk about what something as massive as Elder Scrolls V means when the game consumes as many hours as it does? But the secret to these games, particularly Skyrim, is that they are scalable to a variety of audiences. I can spend an hour or two every other day. I know of people merrily tromping through their 400th hour in the northern province of Tamriel. Somehow this same game provides entertainment to both extremes. Each adventure might not be terribly original or amazing, but they are deliberately constructed with the idea that they can be solved and completed in one game sitting. They are also somewhat solitary games obviously which is probably for the best in my case. I resist trying things like WOW and Guild Wars 2 not because I think I would hate them but because I'm pretty sure they would quickly devour my life. A nice thing about Bethesda RPGs: at some point you will encounter the 15th guard to tease you about stolen sweet rolls and can happily put down the controller to try something more productive.

Like this blog. I've been plugging away at this project since the summer, through ups and downs. I've tried to make a posting just about everyday since the end of November and the experience has been very rewarding. For every embarrassing mistake, I've still had the chance to say something and feel like I had an audience. If I have learned one thing this year, it's this: don't write to waste people's time. I don't think everything that I've written here has been terribly important, but I've made sure it was honest. Having blog is more than just a way to network and practice writing, it's about developing that sense of accountability as a writer. What I'm doing here may only be important to me, but I will take it seriously. 

Lastly, I want to leave with a note of thanks that in a year with terrible storms and natural disasters, wars and riots, there remains considerable room for optimism. As much as Obama disappoints or compromises, he is still there. We are not waiting around for the Romney Administration to start. As vicious as the civil wars and unrest in the Middle East appear, some form of democracy appears to be sprouting. We haven't gone to war with Iran or North Korea. There's movement on gun control and near certainty that the wealthiest in this society will be contributing more to this country that has given them so much. Progress marches on.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

What I heard in 2012

Ah, music. I got tons of it this year and a significant portion was even released in 2012. My wife complained that a lot of the music I've been listening to has been 'samey' which is her usual complaint for plaintive indie rock. In truth, I definitely wanted to listen to a particular sound this year and with few exceptions I was able to find what I was looking for.

5) Dr. John: Locked Down. Dr. John has been around awhile, and has produced a kind of jazzy funk Zydego for most of his career. This album, produced with assistance from Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys accomplishes a nifty trick, simultaneously retro and futuristic in sound. Only a few of the songs really stand out on their own but the whole album latches on with tobacco stained teeth and will not let go.

4) Cate Le Bon: Cyrk. I've listened to this album repeatedly and not been able to get to the center of it. It's not exactly mysterious, just off-kilter. The Lou Reed guitars chime along to Le Bon's flat elven speak-sing narratives about mill-town drudgery and mill-town girls. The sound is desolation but oddly inviting. One of the few albums I got this year I put on infinite repeat just so I could figure out what was really going on.

3) The Shins: I liked this album quite a bit but mostly I'm putting it up here because I couldn't get "A Simple Song" out of my head. Yeah, it's an ear-worm, but an emotionally honest and insistent one.

2) The Walkmen: Another band trading in emotional honesty. "Heartbreaker" was my favorite cut but "We Can't Be Beat," is a great opening song.

1) Grizzly Bear: Shields. My pick for album of the year. More adventurous than Vectimest but also more confident and coherent. "Sleeping Ute" and "Speak in Rounds," set the cryptic rolling mood but it takes until "A Simple Answer," before the tension resolves around resignation. "No wrong or right/Just do whatever you like."

Honorable Mention: Staff Bendi Belili's Bouger le Monde! Cuban rhythms from a Kinshasa street band.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Year in Review: Movies

Okay, now a challenge. This year was filled to the brim with well-crafted, cinematically intriguing, visually masterful, thought-provoking, near-classics. Other than the film I've selected for my favorite, it's tough to imagine how many of these works will truly find a life beyond this year. I don't mean that they're forgettable, I just mean that they seem small, restricted, and part of a specific time and place or marketing campaign.

So with that in mind, I'll proceed after one last caveat. The films that follow are not meant as objectively the best films of 2012. I am not a film critic and I don't have time/money to watch everything out in the theaters. I didn't watch "Zero Dark Thirty," I missed "The Master," and I haven't had time for "Django Unchained" yet. These are simply the movies that I can honestly say impressed me the most or at least paralleled my experiences during the year in some meaningful way.

Let's go:

5) The Dark Knight Rises. The last of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy and perhaps the most uneven. It takes a long time to get started and the long Winter Anarchy section sort of falls apart if you think about it too much. But, this was big epic film making. It took risks, it absolutely has to be seen on an IMAX screen and Ann Hathaway sly, ironic performance here is nearly equal to her deservedly lauded part in Les Miserables. Tom Hardy's Bane didn't quite meet the standard of Heath Ledger's Joker but he did have his own memorable catch phrase:
One last thought, I think this movie might also have my favorite ending of the year. I'm not sure what would happen once Robin Blake finds the Bat Cave but I was left with a sense of possibilities and continuity and mystery.

4) The Avengers. I'm not sure if the monumental nature of Joss Whedon's task in making the Avenger's movie was fully appreciated. Somehow, this movie was supposed to knit together characters from four other franchises (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and The Hulk) into one coherent two hour movie. How do you take characters from wildly disparate genres and have them fit together in the same scene without the whole project seeming arch or silly? The answer is you confront the issue head-on. You make the subtext of the story - the jarring juxtaposition of characters - into the theme of the story. Avengers revolves around the question of whether or not people with radically different backgrounds, philosophies, and personalities can work together at all, on anything. Whedon could have thrown this question into more contrast with Loki's mind-control assimilation or some recognition his film appears in an election year but then it wouldn't have been as much fun.

3) Argo. I've never liked Ben Affleck as an actor, his delivery is obvious and one-dimensional. Even movies he's in that I like - Good Will Hunting, the Town and Argo - tend to work best with Affleck in the background, his on-screen speaking time brief. The basic problem is that he has movie star looks but a character actor's instincts. Which is funny, because I think Ben Affleck the director gets this. The Town was a fine caper flick and Argo is even better. Affleck essentially uses himself as a straight man for a variety of improbably colorful extras. It helps that the story he's harnessed is so good. The hair-brained scheme to extract American diplomats from revolutionary Iran by pretending to be part of a Hollywood film is so impossible it could only be real. But even better, Affleck understands the most tense part of an action movie isn't when the shooting happens its the moment before the bullets fly. Thus, in a action movie about a violent uprising, you can count the number of gun fights on one hand and the tensest moment revolves around a ringing telephone.

2) Moonlight Kingdom. Okay, let's just get this out of the way. I love Wes Anderson films. I loved Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and all the rest of them. Even bad Anderson films are conceived with more passion and intelligence than 98% of everything else in Hollywood. Any Anderson film has a better than even chance of winding up somewhere in my top five. It's at the second spot because it's the first Anderson film in a while that reminded me of why I liked Rushmore so much. The quiet mannered reserve of these films, the OCD sets, the tightly wound screwball characters, work best when they serve as kindling on the campfire of a larger story. The storm itself is a release for all of the potential energy in the first two thirds of the films.

1) Lincoln. I wrote a review for this film recently which I'm not eager to repeat line for line. I think this was the film of the year because it, while firmly part of what going on in our culture right now, also escapes it. It helps that Daniel Day Lewis' performance is so grand, Speilberg's direction so assured, and Kushner's script so human and gritty. But what really seals the deal for me is a unity of vision. Politically, aesthetically, philosophically, this is a film that takes all the disparate, unruly chunks of a moment in time and fuses them into a view of our country and a single man bent on reforming and improving it. What's on display isn't pretty. It's also not a documentary. It's fiction. Fiction is a lie that tells the truth. Lincoln had more truth to tell than anything else in cinema this year.

Honorable Mentions: The Cabin in the Woods, The Secret World of Arietty, Les Miserables, and Chronicle.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Year in Review: Books

On one hand, this list is the easiest to compile. I read exactly one book that came out this year: The Wrong Goodbye by +Chris Holm. It was very good and I'll talk it up again below but I'm going to start off by making a very serious New Year's resolution - I need to read at least five books published in 2013 next year.

Which shouldn't get in the way of the fact I enjoyed The Wrong Goodbye or take way from Holm's achievement. Sam Thornton is a Collector, the disembodied spirit of a man bound to a demonic debt, collecting the souls of the condemned for the powers of the underworld. The Wrong Goodbye is the second in the series and broadens the story by adding details to Sam's past, including introducing two fellow Collectors to the story. When one of these former companions steals Sam's latest assignment, he goes on a twisted road-trip across America to hunt him down. Like any good story on the road, the narrative is leavened by set-pieces, the inadvertent kidnapping of a cowboy, a Lovecraftian crack den, and the jarring climax set in the middle of a Day of the Dead festival. What makes all of this work is Holm's talent for characters, straight-ahead narrative, and subtle mythologizing. If you like Chandler but always secretly wished some of the bad guys were literally hell-bound instead of just figuratively, The Wrong Goodbye is your book.

Now, I'm also going to include a list of the five other books I greatly enjoyed reading this year even though they didn't exactly come out this year.

5) The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power by Daniel Yergin. The story of the 20th century as told from the point of view of the Oil Industry. This is not a quick read but looking at World War II and the Gulf War through the prism of the principal resource of the modern world has lost none if its relevance. I would live to write a future history written in this style about some other crucial resource. Although some might argue that what Kin Stanley Robinson attempted in his Mars Trilogy.
4) Koko by Peter Straub. Under appreciated masterpiece of characterization and ambiguity in modern thrillers. A group of Vietnam War comrades attempt to track down a serial killer named Koko, a man they believe is a fallen member of their platoon. While nothing overtly supernatural happens in the story it's hard to read this without treating it as a particularly subtle firm if ghost story.
3) Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. Some call it dated, I prefer to think its an artifact of some parallel and perhaps superior time line. The first in an epic trilogy expressly about the colonization and terraforming of Mars, but more accurately a record of futurist philosophy. It's hard to imagine how Mars will ever be more full of life than in the pages of this book.
2) Blindsight by Peter Watts: A group of unlikely astronauts encounter an alien life form at the far edges of out solar system. It's tough to decide what's more unsettling about this book, the emotionless protagonist, the paleo-vampire captain, or the sinister, subversive nature of the aliens. Also a novel of ideas, primarily the idea that consciousness is a hollow and tattered illusion. Bleak, powerful stuff.
1) Cloud Atlas: my friend Dave has been talking up this book for years and I finally decided to read it before watching the movie. A collection of inter- tangled novellas, each story bearing links to the others, each a nearly perfect meditation on the themes of slavery, hope, and cannibalism. Taken as a whole, this is the most successful novelistic response to the Internet, a book about networks, connections, and choices.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Do you hear?

When reviewing an adaption it's important to realize something. There is no true Les Miserables. Well possibly the novel, as it sprawls across hundreds of pages, and an equally bulky cast of characters. But that isn't really where "Les Miserables" comes from.

It is after all an adaption of a stage production and a musical. No one night will be exactly the same as the next, even assuming all of the actors are the same. One note might hold for a fraction of a second longer or receive a different emphasis. So when we approach a movie, which will be the same viewing after viewing, it's important to consider just what choices are being made. I've seen two live showings of Les Miz, one which placed a lot more emphasis on the spectacle of the Barricade and revolution. The other, somewhat more subdued, treated the events of the middle third of the story as a tragic backdrop to Jean Val Jean's passion play. The quality of the songs and story of Les Miz isn't in question, what matters are the individual choices of the production.

One strong aspect of the film is that the production does make choices. I think the temptation must have been, find a bunch of talented singers, have them record the soundtrack and then find some unknowns to act on screen. As long as the producers avoided cutting too many important scenes the thing would have made millions and I wouldn't give it the slightest consideration. Instead, as you no doubt know, The director and producer (Tom Hooper and Cameron Mackintosh) decided on a riskier course, not just hiring name actors but insisting they sing in scene, to preserve the integrity of the acting. The pay-off for this gamble is Anne Hathaway's truly devastating take on "I Dreamed a Dream," and the fiery exchanges between Hugh Jackman (Jean Val Jean) and Russell Crowe (Inspector Javert). The singing is rough, raw, and firmly lashed to the cause of telling a story.

The movies is shakier when it comes to the full-cast numbers. In particular, the opening scene of prisoners dragging a man-of-war into dry dock, is powerful visually. Neptune's full wrath is on display, towering waves crashing over shattered ships, and broken men. The dry dock itself, an immense scalloped bathtub, filled with men straining against ropes and weather, is an image the film actually returns to late in the movie. Against the chaos of nature, the film shows the colossal systems of control and oppression man establishes as a bulwarks of order. As pure metaphor, this works. However, this scene is also one of the more stirring full-cast numbers in the musical, "Look Down." In the pulsing roar of the waves, the growled despair of the song just disappears. The impulse to extreme close-ups and solos within chorus arrangement makes its first appearance. I don't think this is indefensible, I just think its very hard to hear the song.

Fortunately such minor missteps are few and far between. This film was made with sincerity and surprising craft. Just as the music of Les Miz reuses and revisits melodies and motifs, the movie keeps returning to certain evocative images: Javert's feet walking the edge of the abyss, elaborate barricades and walls, splashes of blue and red. Coupled with an emphasis on the coincidences of the original story (Cosette and Eponine both living in the same part of the city, the reappearance of Fauchelevent, the intertwining footsteps of Val Jean and Javert's fate), these echoes suggest a larger design at work. But where many versions of the story point to these coincidences as evidence of a divine plan, here they suggest something slightly more secular. When Val Jean dies and goes to his reward, he joins the people of Paris in the throes of a successful revolution, safely behind a barricade manned by the armed elect. This is a curiously militant afterlife: heaven as a people's uprising.








Monday, December 24, 2012

Stocking Stuffers

No particular structure for today's posting, just a few things that have drawn my notice.

Read this article from the Daily Mail. Now, are you with me? This is more like it. First of all, the idea of capturing asteroids and bringing them into Earth orbit is an important step for any would-be space colonizing civilization. The possibility of a stepping stone for exploring the other inner system planets is even better. But let's not lose sight of the basic idea. Step 1: waltz over to a sizable space rock. Step 2: While talking softly to it, take a big trash bag, lasso it and bring it back to cislunar space. Step 3: Wash, rinse, and repeat.



As I understand it, the problem with space exploration currently is getting material and personnel out of the home world's gravity well. Basically every project has to be built to pass through several radically different physical environments just to complete a task. It's sort of like if early explorers had to explore the New World with amphibious, self-propelled wagons that could transport themselves across Spain, to the nearest port, then deploy pontoons and windmills to make the ocean trek. Any process that reduces the number of multi-stage rockets is bound to increase the feasibility of the whole venture.

But also, using plastic bags to capture asteroids.

Shifting gears. I'm going back to Chrome. This is part of a larger trend away from Apple products. I love my iPhone, I love my Mac, I've decided I don't much care for the software Apple puts on those devices. I am no software engineer. The last time I programmed anything it was in Basic. But I do appreciate simplicity in design and function. Google makes software that intuitively, routinely, and conveniently meets the promise of the 'cloud.' What I type in Docs appears seamlessly on phone, laptop and desktop. Google search just flat out works better than Safari on my phone. Google Maps is well, it's Google Maps.

In comparison, most of Apple's offerings resemble digital supply chains; a Pages document is a physical product that must be laboriously packaged and shipped to some other digital product vendor. Sometimes it makes the trip, other times not so much.

One last thought before I get started writing this morning: one of my friends recommended Tumblr to me last night. Do any of you have observations on the difference between Blogger and Tumblr you'd care to share? I've been pleased with the slow influx of readers and commenters the past few months. I played around with Tumblr a little last night but couldn't find an easy way to combine Ancient Logic with a Tumblr blog. If I could post to both, so much the better. If the option was migrating to Tumblr, I'd probably just stick with this for the time being.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Dark Age Now

Yesterday, Wayne LaPierre, president of the National Rifle Association gave his organization's prescription for solving the epidemic of gun violence in this country. As you no doubt know, Wayne's idea is recruiting armed guards for all of the nation's schools. Now, with an exaggerated attempt towards fairness, 40% of this nation's high school's have at least a part-time presence of armed guards or school resource officers. The NRA's proposal would go far beyond that, however, calling for retired military personnel and police officers at all schools, around the clock. I saw the figure of $80,000 to fund a full-time security professional for the 40+ hours necessary to watch out for armed shooters.

"The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," is probably the one quote destined live beyond this poorly received press event.

I'll say one thing for the utterance above, it has the virtue of simplicity. Mind-numbing, infuriating, bib-wearing simplicity. Like all absolutists, the great intellects of the NRA have trouble thinking through the implications of their ideas or even the short-comings. As one blogger pointed out there are any number of examples of bad guys with guns proceeding unstopped during a massacre, even when confronted with a good guy with a gun: a school officer exchanged fire with one of the shooters at Columbine. Then let's turn to the other big news story on the national scene this week: the failure of the Republicans to deal with the Fiscal Cliff. Where does Wayne think the money for armed guards for every school in the country is going to come from?

Let's not even grace this as a rhetorical question. The point of the NRA presser was never to contribute in a meaningful conversation on gun control. At best Friday was the airing of collective delusions, at worst it's a variation on NRA's successful blueprint on combatting meaningful reform for the past two decades. Take no responsibility for the situation, blame everyone else, throw some crazy idea, like chum out into the water, to provoke the sound and fury of debate. Sit back while status quo reasserts itself.

But I'd like to advance one more reaction I haven't seen anywhere else. The NRA's proposal should be taken as a serious policy initiative from the pro-Dark Ages faction of our society. During the Roman Empire's long decline, the frontier was increasingly left to its own devices. The Roman Army degerated into collections of mercenaries and local warlords. The equipment and training left behind Rome's retreat became the power centers of the Visigoth, Hun, and Frankish feudalism. When you cast a central authority as the enemy and work tirelessly to militarize the fringes of civilization, you cannot be on the side of light and understanding. The NRA is an agent of chaos, disorder, and barbarism.



But at least they have shown a remarkable consistency in their vision. Stand-your-ground and concealed weapons laws and now ranks of mercenaries in school buildings; this is a vision of a society atomized into paranoid armed camps. You have to wonder what this country would be like if the amount of money devoted to destroying society was spent instead on reconstructing it.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

My association with 12/21/12


I picked up my copy of this paper and pencil RPG about twenty years ago and played it throughout high school. If I'd been born a few years before, I might have played more DnD and a few years later and I'd probably have been sucked into Evercrack but this was better in my view: Magic and technology, side-by-side, with a character generation system that let you create pretty much any street samurai, battle mage, or rigger you wanted. The world of Shadowrun was deep, involved and printed in source books so cheap they pretty much disintegrated the second you looked finished reading through them.

But anyway, for me, 12/21/12 will always be the start of the fifth world, marked in the Shadowrun mythology as the date a dragon wakes up and flies around Mt. Rainier. Awesome! I will take that over some moldy misconception over Mayan calendar practices any day.

 This also marks the last few days in the year, which I've traditionally marked with a round of Year's Best lists (What can I say, I like lists). I think I have a few more essays about writing and speculative fiction to round out this week and then the lead up to next year will be as follows:

  1. My picks for music of 2012
  2. My favorite films of 2012
  3. My year in games (all types)
  4. Things I'll remember about 2012
  5. Wishes for next year


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Hobbit: Film or Movie

The only question I had sitting down for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, was not whether or not page 113 was faithfully adapted (I'm going to take a wild guess and say it wasn't), or whether or not three hours is a bit excessive for the first part of slim children's book (it is), or whether or not there's much point to the exercise at all (I think there is, more on that later). The real question in my mind was whether or not Peter Jackson would have settled for making a movie called "The Hobbit," or would he make a film called "The Hobbit."

First a few words on the difference between movies and films. A movie is entertainment, a film is art. A movie serves the purpose of filling seats to make money for a film studio, its success or failure can be determined by how well it convinces people to plunk down $10 to $15 for the chance to see the spectacle. Once the movie has been watched, it has been consumed, its meaning is no more significant than the pattern of smoke and sparks on the Fourth of July.  That's not necessarily a bad thing: I happily watched all of the Marvel Avenger Universe movies and I will happily watch whichever others come down the pike.

Question:

Answer: Why yes, yes I am.

But there's also something to be said for film. Film is difficult. Film doesn't come right up and give you the easy solution you were looking for, or any solution at all. Films are about something, even when, or especially if, they don't make rational sense (David Lynch, I am looking in your direction). Film finds a way to reveal something truthful about the human condition and provoke meaningful conversations afterwards. Films are memorable, even when they're bad.

So that's the question I was hoping to resolve after watching Peter Jackson's adaptation of the book. Would there be some memorable emotional core to the project, some aspect of ambition and challenge? Or would this like the last two thirds of King Kong?

Was I entertained? Absolutely. The special effects have certainly improved since the last time Hobbits trod the Middle Earth on hairy feet. With one or two missteps, it is nearly impossible to discern where exactly the boundary between analogue and digital meets. Intellectually I know that actors parading around in absurd beard styles and bulky armor are not going to be tossing back and forth dishes while pounding out standards from the Tolkien song book. Emotionally, I completely bought it.

The drama of the adventure is there and while it takes a while to understand precisely what a mild-mannered hobbit, Bilbo, is doing tromping from one misadventure to the next, the movie does offer a more cogent answer than I remember the novel delivering. Also helpful is Martin Freeman's performance which presents a Hobbit of quick wit and carefully concealed wanderlust, which is more or less how I've always remembered the character.

There are fights, silly accents, epic set pieces, cheesy dialogue, convenient plotting and just about everything else you would expect from a summer blockbuster movie. Everything except for the fact that this isn't a summer movie, obviously.

Jackson clearly sees no literary separation between Alice Sebold's Lovely Bones and deep-cuts from Tolkien's appendixes because he approaches both with the same voracious and omnivorous passion. The Hobbit is filled with orcs, goblins, trolls and giants but Jackson assumes the material carries with it some deeper importance.

In particular, the pivotal riddle confrontation between Bilbo and Gollum is where Jackson mines some deeper ore. It starts pretty much at the introduction of Gollum. The fallen creature finds a goblin, knocked senseless after a fight with Bilbo and savagely dispatches it with the most handy tool, a heavy rock. The back and forth between Bilbo and Andy Serkis' Gollum is somehow more playful than anything in the Lord of the Rings and more sinister. And yet, when Bilbo tricks his opponent into leading him out of a maze of caverns, we get a moment of real emotional truth. The creature's lonely haunted eyes fill the screen for a masterfully drawn out moment. And although Bilbo was being threatened with murder mere seconds before, his pity in the moment is understandable and inevitable. It also leads directly into a nice exchange between the Hobbit and the Thorin, the skeptical leader of the dwarves. "Why am I coming with you? To help you find your home." We buy that answer more than anything else between the two because we saw how it was earned.

Alas, that 15 minute span happens well into the movie and doesn't mark the end of the film like it really should. Instead we go back into movie-mode for another twenty minutes while CGI creatures battle it out in a forest fire. Fun, but not...necessary.

I knew 20 minutes into Fellowship of the Ring that I was watching film-making. The occasional epic battle aside, I knew something significant and sincere lie at the center of the film. I don't have quite the same confidence this time around, but I haven't exactly had my hopes dashed either. Let's hope the director's edition of The Unexpected Journey shaves 30 minutes instead of adding them.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Ingress

My friend Matt has recently become interested in the Google Augmented Reality game Ingress. I knew about as much as anyone else does by virtue of the promotional video:



But apparently there's a lot more to it. At the moment the game is in alpha, which in typical Google SOP means you have to get an invite to play the game. Atypically, acquiring an invite is less about finding someone you know who has it (ala Google+) and more like passing an audition. Basically, you can wait at one of the metered portals for an invite or send a cool picture, tagged with "Ingress" or one of the other popular hashtags for the game. This is my friends work:

https://plus.google.com/101002632394819121609/posts/XxQHHo6HEeQ

So it appears he was successful, nice work!

The actual play clips I've seen make it seem like a combination of geo-caching and Layers and also a bit of a road hazard, but still...very interesting.



Seriously I'd check out all four of the links below, there are some really creative artifacts people have come up with.

Apparently this is a major initiative at Google and it's not hard to see where this is going. Add augmented reality game that encourages people to walk around cities looking for obscure public art, add Google Glasses so the game overlays create a more seamless experience and then plug the occasional paying advertiser. I don't say that as a criticism. If it works, this could portend all sorts of Neil Stephenson-sque, Snow Crash Metaverse style developments.

As promised here are those links as well as as a link to the article about Ingress.
Anne Beuttenmüller, Joe Philley, Brandon Badger, Brian Rose.
Data-mining as a Game


Monday, December 17, 2012

Future Guidance

"No Flying Cars, But the Future is Bright" is an article that neatly sums up a few things I've been thinking about this week. Virginia Postrel wrote the article to talk about how the small incremental changes over the past few decades do add up to a big deal. The article itself was written in reaction to this piece, "Why We Can't Solve Big Problems," by Jason Pontin, in the MIT Technology Review. I'm not going to do a full summation of the two articles, you can choose to do that on your own, or not, but here are the bumper stickers:

  1. Pontin claims that the reason the future seems to be been deferred, the reason that we have Twitter instead of Transcontinental Supersonic flights, is that we have lost our will to progress. For a variety of political, and cultural reasons, we have lost the will to think big. NASA has plans that could take us to Mars by 2030 if we only had the political will that existed in the '60s. Global Warming might not be so catastrophic if we could just move past the political grid-lock of the present.
  2. On the other hand, Postrel claims that the future is doing just fine, thank you. Yeah, 2001 the movie from the 1960s looked a lot different than 2001 in reality. On many levels. But the improvement in efficiency, information exchange and medical technology do represent progress. A time traveler from the middle of last century would be impressed with the world he or she discovered.
I think the note of congratulation in Postrel's piece is probably not unwarranted. We live in a country with tremendous problems, problems thrown into harsh contrast this past weekend. However, we are still a country moving in the right direction. We reelected a progressive president from an ethnic group subjected to segregation and casual explicit racism in this country last century. It appears more and more certain that the outcome of the budget fights will be one favorable to social justice. While frustratingly ubiquitous, technology has allowed all of us to become part of something quite a bit larger than a town, city, state or even, arguably, a country. The change is one of scale and efficiency but it is still a change.

But Pontin's article is still compelling. I wonder if the value of such statements: "The future was supposed to be so much better!"is not so much their relative accuracy but simply that they keep moving us forward. Damnit, I've said it before, but we should be on Mars already. We should be doing more to protect this planet. And, the idea of violence as the primary solution to problems should be more and more unthinkable, unimaginable.

Maybe that's the value of speculative fiction in general, not so much a prediction, but a sign post pointing towards some other, weirder, better future.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Nerd Storm

I'll start off by saying today's post is going to be purposefully rambling. I've had an entire weekend of nerdery, and the only thing that one can do after such a weekend is bask in the afterglow.

 Went shopping yesterday for alleged Christmas gifts. I say alleged because when you hand select your gift -- no, let's go further than that -- when you stand next to the person buying the gift for you and obsess at great length about the storage capacity, color scheme, and screen protector options for said purchase, you are no longer going to be the recipient of a 'gift.' You are taking part in a transaction for a good to be received at some future specified date. Not that I'm complaining. The gift is pretty awesome.

From there, I went to hang out with friends and played "Brass," a European style board game our little group has been trying to play for about a year and a half. Check out the game for your self on this link if you're curious but I'll give you the thumbnail. Why has it taken us a year and a half to play this game? Let's just say it's unusually complicated even for our board game nights.



Brass is a resource management game simulating the growth of industrialization in Northern England around Manchester in the 19th century. It comes with a board showing the canal and rail links between the towns of north central England, a staggering pile of multi-colored tiles and an equally impressive bag of colorful wooden cubes. So far pretty standard stuff for your typical Euro-game: more or less on par for Power Grid, Puerto Rico, or Settlers of Catan. What really pushes Brass to the front though are the rules. Even allowing for the triplication of pages for to the three language in the directions, the booklet has about the same number of pages as this week's Time's magazine. As the video I've linked to states, the rules seem almost eager to flaunt their complexity, written in vague machine language: this block will be given to that player on the basis of which industry is closest unless that route should pass through Lancester.

Amusing: the number of 'quick start' rules available that do little to cut down this complexity. Eventually we resorted to YouTube just to see what the board was supposed to look like if we actually played a turn.

Unfortunately no one can be told what Brass is, you have to see it.

But eventually we figured it out and played through an entire game. It was only in the closing round that we realized everything was proceeding much too quickly and realized we should have been using all of our cards at the ends of the periods. Oh yeah, there are cards as well. But even radically truncated the game isn't too bad once you cleared away all of the clutter. Fun was had. We just wished Will Wheaton would get around to the reviewing the game on Geek & Sundry.

Today, the Hobbit. I've already put down a few thoughts about the length of this movie, but in terms of actual word of mouth from actual people who've seen it: it's supposed to be pretty good. I'm seeing it at the Natick Imax, full 3-D, 48 frames per second, enormous screen, so I imagine my next post will be a page or so of gibbering while I process the spectacle of the thing.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

The stories we tell

I had a much longer post about the events of yesterday, but blogger ate it. So that's very frustrating but I want to re-create some of what I was thinking about.

This roger Ebert interview (http://boingboing.net/2012/12/15/roger-ebert-on-how-the-press-r.html) came to my attention this morning and it seems like something I really should've mentioned as part of yesterday's post. Part of the frustration about gun violence is that it really isn't just one thing that causes them or would, presumably, help reduce them. It is a constellation of inter-related issues. The ready availability of guns. The gun culture we have in this country. The lack of access to good mental help for the individuals really need it.

And of course the media.

There is something sick about the repetitive nature of coverage in the media of gun violence. We see images of parents interviewed in the week of unspeakable tragedies, we see images of police and screaming children, we have an panel talking heads discussing the same issues and again and again and again. Nothing changes when things like this happen, these images become nothing more than commodities.

The one thing that criminologists say repeatedly is we should not be publicizing the identity or thoughts of the killers. More than just encouraging copy cats it's one more part of a self reinforcing vicious cycle.

Also relevant: http://boingboing.net/2012/12/15/charlie-brooker-on-media-cover.html

Thanks Alex.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Meaningful action

My heart goes out to those affected by today's tragedy at the Sandyhook elementary school in Newtown Connecticut.

I am a teacher, and it's difficult for me to watch the news right now and not think about what I would feel as a parent, or an educator, or even just a classmate of those lost in this terrible attack. This is in itself an abomination, compounded by all of the other abominations that have happened this year through of gun violence. Seriously how can we allow this?I don't know why this kind of thing happens in this country. I don't know why there are so many troubled people certain that the only way that they can cut out the pain in their own hearts is by putting bullets through other people. I don't know why there are so many people so terrified of the citizens of their country that they'd buy guns designed to for purpose of killing other people. But I do know that this is something that happens in our country and pretty much our country alone.

I grew up in this. I come from a family with guns who hunted and who paid dues to the NRA. I ignored it because it didn't really mesh with my world view. In my world view, the slow tide of progress would sponge away the old fears that so obviously fueled gun ownership. But it hasn't disappeared, it has gotten stronger. We live in a culture that secretly dreams of shooting half of itself to death. Fantasizes about that.

Meaningful action has to be taken. It should be impossible to fire 100 rounds of ammunition in a single morning. At the very minimum guns meant only for the production of mass death should be outlawed. Clips carrying more than say five bullets should not be available. And it should be easier to get mental health assistance than buying a firearm.

I have to believe that these things at the very least can be possible in this country.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Art of Previews

Previews are an under appreciated art form. And they are an art form: anything involving the application of tremendous amounts of creativity, craft, and effort for the purpose of generating an emotional response is art in my view. So let's just put that aside for the moment.

And yet, I don't know of any awards for movie trailers, and very rarely do they get written up appreciatively for their own merits. Mostly, when trailers are referenced in media or popular culture, they occupy a strange crepuscular role as proxies for the topic people really want to talk about -- the movie itself.

I had my eyes opened to the idea of trailers as an art form, distinct from the cinema they represent, by an article I read a long time ago in the NY Times (back when I read the Times in dead tree form). By peeking behind the curtains of the production team that made the trailer for M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs," it became clear trailers aren't really about the movie. They contain images from the movie and they might sketch the barest indications of the plot, but essentially they function by accessing something beyond the movie itself, the inner reaches of an audience's desires. A trailer works by tapping into something a potential viewer wants to see, even if they don't know it themselves. The production team working on the "Signs" all but ignored what the movie was actually about. They were more concerned with how the raw footage and dialogue, minus context, might register on an emotional level. All of it was simply unprocessed material to use in the trailer. Mix in some orchestration and the trailer begins to flick all of the deep brain switches that make us want to shell out $10 to watch an M. Night Shyamalan movie.



I try to keep that sausage-making aspect of trailers in mind when watching the current crop of trailers. For every Dark Knight Rises trailer faithfully translating what was actually good about the movie, there are plenty of Cloud Atlases, extremely well-produced beautiful mini-films that ultimately do little except highlight how far the movie fell from its potential.

It's tough, for example, to know what to make of the new Star Trek movie "Into Darkness" from the trailer. Apart from some iconic shots of the Enterprise, this trailer doesn't exactly separate itself from any other Hollywood action movie. Granted the preview was extremely short, but a number of the scenes could have been transposed to the Battleship trailer without anyone batting an eye. Future San Francisco even looks a bit like modern Hong Kong.



Then we have "Pacific Rim," which popped out of nowhere last night. The preview has some elements I found enormously appealing. Kaiju are cool, no two ways about it. Kaiju designed and filmed by Guillermo del Toro are more cool yet. Giant Mechs are cool. Giant Mechs punching aforementioned Kaiju in the face could be in every movie ever made for the next 10 years in my opinion. But, what's the deal with GLADoS providing the voice-over, apparently for the good-guys? I found that distracting, and unhelpful. Not to knock Portal at all (a game I love), but the worlds of video games and movies are already merging to an unhealthy degree. If science fiction movies are simply going to devolve into video games without button-mashing, what's the point?

On a somewhat related note:

I'm watching the first "Hobbit" movie this Sunday, which I expect to review at some point. I'm mildly disappointed by the early feedback from reviewers. Too long, no tension, sort of pointless. I'm not disappointed because I wanted this movie to be great, I'm disappointed because this is exactly the problem one of my movie friends pointed out in the summer when it became clear a 320 page book was being turned into nine hours of movie. Excess, thy name is Peter Jackson.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

To Speculate on Progress


Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn't exist in the 24th century.
Lily Sloane: No money? You mean, you don't get paid?
Picard: ...We work to better ourselves.

Star Trek: First Contact (courtesy of IMDb)



What kind of future interests me in my writing? I started writing science fiction because I read the Foundation series, Neuromancer added some complications and then Star Trek went back on air. Those are the three big touchstones of my early writing life. Each of these worlds offer significantly diverging views on how the future might play out. Neuromancer, Gibson's protestations aside, paints a fairly vivid dystopia. Corporations rule the world, vast inhuman forces use people as chess pieces in incomprehensibly baroque intrigues. With Star Trek, the future is a sand-box, a stage from which the great personal dramas of individuals are played out. The moral questions are weighty but the tone is positive. Not every dilemma meets a satisfactory conclusion, but at least the path forward seems clear. The Federation, human beings more specifically, have a kind of secular destiny to reach out to the stars. 

Then there's the Foundation series. I would argue that Asimov paints a very agnostic view of human progress. On one hand, it is clear Asimov views the impact of individuals as important to the story as a whole. The heroes of Foundation master incredible challenges but mostly by standing out of the way of Hari Seldon's psychohistorical schemes. History is depicted as cyclical, inevitable, and, on the whole, rather depressing. An empire spanning the entire galaxy is no more than an oasis between dark ages. Seldon's project doesn't seek to advert a cataclysm but merely shorten its duration.

The books I've read recently reminded me of this old conflict. 



As a clear inheritor of the Gibson/Shirley cyberpunk aesthetic, Peter Watts wields different levels of dystopia like some authors employ characters. His world view wobbles between a vision of the future where the only hope for social misfits and deviants is radical body modification and life at the bottom of the ocean (Rifters) to one where no hope exists at all and the world is destined to be taken over by sociopathic vampires (Blindsight). Not exactly cheery stuff, but effective. Stripped of the cloying pieties of most speculative fiction, Watt's fiction tends give terribly flawed characters a moment where they finally reach something approaching humanity just as they are obliterated by thermonuclear warheads. The interesting thing about these works for me is that the character growth always seems a lot more convincing than the apocalypse.



Then, of course we have Kim Stanley Robinson, author of Red Mars (the focus of a few of my recent posts) and Years of Rice and Salt which I reviewed earlier this fall. Robinson falls into the Gene Roddenberry school of science fiction; centered around individual drama, absolutely committed to the utopian notion that human ingenuity and curiosity can overcome ancient horrors. This theme appears intermittently throughout Red Mars but forcefully in Years of Rice and Salt. To briefly sketch out the final chapters of that alternate history novel: in a world where 99% of Europe dies from the Bubonic Plague civilization still manages to recapitulate the renaissance, industrial revolution, feminism, environmentalism, and finally global democratic institutions. Nightmares abound, but Robinson maintains focus on a gradual and inevitable improvement in the human condition. By the final pages, we have entered a world filled with people able to recognize kinship and connection across the boundaries of culture, background and history. Maybe utopia is too strong a label, but it's still a fairly convincing portrayal of a 'better world.' 


Finally we have Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Mitchell is leagues above Asimov in terms of craft and technique but the perspective he brings to the future is similar. History is cyclical in Cloud Atlas, the mistakes of one generation reappearing in another. Individual characters are capable of reaching moments of epiphany (Frobisher), catharsis (Adam Ewing) and out right victory (Luisa Rey and Timothy Cavendish) but each episode of history in the book contains the same themes of slavery, cannibalism and exploitation. Moreover, no moment of victory is so overwhelming that it can avoid a future apocalypse. The course of history is inevitable. Yet, somehow Cloud Atlas is not an especially grim novel. Even if the hope expressed in the stories comes in primarily on the individual level, it's still hope. Individual lives matter to the other individuals that they save.

Confronted by these three visions of the future I feel no closer to a preference to any of them. There are times when I wished I had one constant philosophy my writing expressed. But ultimately, I write because I'm trying to work out some episode or character or scenario in my head I can't make sense of any other way. Maybe my idea of the future is a place where the stories themselves push the world forward. Star Trek, a cheesy show from the 60s, suggests a way of life not centered around the blind acquisition of power and wealth. 

There are worse legacies.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Exotic techologies


One thing that I certainly appreciated about Red Mars was its principled refusal to over-explain. Enormously complex and esoteric features of terraforming, interplanetary economics and life support were tossed off casually in the novel with nary a word said about them. Two technologies that I found particularly interesting (mostly because I hadn't actually heard of them before) were air miners and moholes. I thought I spend a posting looking at both of them. 


 
Air mining is very possible and is in fact one of the central things allowing the Mars Direct plan to function. Basically the idea is that a lander on the moon will be able to process the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to create consumables for a lift-off from the planet. Producing propellants is easy once hydrogen and enough heat have been applied (Sabatier's reaction.) However, in fairness, the air miners described in Red Mars are somewhat more flexible harvesting not just volatiles but also water, argon and magnesium. A quick look at wikipedia's article on the Atmosphere of Mars doesn't mention any magnesium in the air but there's plenty of it in the soil. Guess what gives Mars it's distinctive pink skies? Dust held in suspension by the thin atmosphere of Mars. That dust could presumably be siphoned off by the same air miners producing fuel, water and carbon.




The other technology that impressed me greatly in the story were moholes. Essentially Moholes are enormous pits dug down through the Martian Lithosphere, close to the still relatively active mantle. The temperature at the bottom of a mohole is greater than the frosty surface creating a temperature differential. Robinson describes great cyclones of warm air spinning out from these holes in through ground. So, in the novel at least, moholes,are primarily a way to raise the temperature of Mars, the mining of raw resources is a fringe benefit. The word Moholes began as a portmanteau of the words 'hole,' (obvious enough) and the 'moho' of the Mohorovičić discontinuity. As unbelievable as this sounds, moholes were actually attempted at the bottom of the ocean; the Mohorovicic Discontinuity is a region in the earth crust that lies within striking distance of the Earth's mantle. An experimental hole was dug in the sixties which nearly made into the semi-liquid rock beneath the earth's crust. The idea behind this is to harness the heat of the earth's core for power generation, an idea that crops up in Peter Watts' Rifter series as well. Moholes also make an appearance in the very entertaining Red Faction video games, although they receive even less explanation than they do in Red Mars.

While Red Mars is science fiction and certainly details the exotic technologies required for the habitation of the fourth planet, Robinson doesn't dwell on explanations. He seems much more interested in the intricacies of future philosophies and politics than the technology that makes these things possible. In a novel with a chapter called "Falling into History," that's probably not a bad idea.

Monday, December 10, 2012

On Improving One's Quality of Life

It's actually pretty easy. After a few months of really enjoying watching TV shows on a friend's Netflix account, shows that I would almost certainly never be able to watch otherwise, simply go an get Netflix. I'm not writing this as an endorsement of anything other than good common sense.

I got a rejection today on "Seven Drawings of Dogs," a horror short story I've been shopping around recently. This one took awhile which was encouraging and the letter was pleasant enough, which was even more encouraging. Like I've been saying the only way I can guarantee not getting published somewhere is if I stop trying.


Sunday, December 9, 2012

First draft done

Endings. A story doesn't end until it's ready but sometimes that ending's already happened. I realized that today in finishing my current story, which has the provisional title of "Broken Symmetry." My outline detailed a certain ending and plotted out every encounter backwards from that conclusion. Then I finished a certain section and realized, hey! this is a perfectly fine ending. All of the threads have come back. We've seen who the characters are. We perhaps don't know exactly what's going to happen to them, but we have a good idea. Better yet, the place I chose to end the story felt slightly off-balance, like the story could go on but the meaning of the story had already arrived.

That feels to me like an ending.



My Platonic ideal of endings begins and ends with the final three pages of "The Bear" by William Faulkner. In the conclusion, Boon Hogganbeck, a rough and ready hunter in the service of the narrator's father, has come across a tree full of squirrels. His gun has jammed and while he labors to clean it, the squirrels run to and fro around the tree. Boon tells the narrator not shoot any of the squirrels. "They're mine!"The moment is a fractal piece of the entirety of the rest of the story. Boon is the hunter who finally puts the blade to the monstrous Old Ben, a bear terrorizing the narrator's ancestral hunting woods. The trees are a final remnant of the woods, already under threat of roads and the loggers they'll bring. So the image dramatizes the comical futility in laying claim to nature. The tree and its squirrels are pathetic shadows of what once stalked the woods. Boon too, before heroic in the narrator's young eyes, has become a pitiful clown. Faulkner suggests that what makes a person great is the act of conquering something equally great, but that this vanquishment simultaneously diminishes the person who achieved it. 

That's my clumsy attempt at reduction, anyway. All of what I've put down is expressed in full only in that final image. But consider the ending from another vantage point, what the ending accomplishes in pragmatic terms. Rather than wrap up the main story, this ending does the necessary task of summing up what the story is about and leaving some image in the reader's mind so inescapably wrong that it complicates everything that came before it. And yet, having read the story, Faulkner's ending couldn't possibly be anything but what he writes it to be.

I'd say that last part also applies to Red Mars, my topic for the past few postings. Obviously, spoilers ahead. The ending of that novel has the survivors of the original hundred settlers reach the the South Martian pole where the so called Hidden Colony has established a refuge in the wake of the Martian colony's catastrophic rebellion. Really by the two-thirds mark of the story, it's blazingly obvious where things are going. The revolt, as portrayed by Robinson, is essentially an hurricane of violence and destruction accomplishing little aside from the deaths of thousands. By its conclusion, there is no longer as safe place on Mars for the original settlers, as they realize the transnational corporations are slowly hunting down each of the Hundred to make the post-rebellion Mars an easier place to govern. The characters aren't going to be leaving Mars and readers know that this refuge exists from a very early stage in the story. So the tension in the closing chapter of the book revolves only around the question of who will survive with one possible exception. This is also the chapter narrated by Ann Claybourne, a radical anti-terraformist, who watches the final destruction of a pristine Mars by the forces unleashed by the rebellion. In Ann's case it's not simply a question of whether she'll survive but if there is any compelling reason to survive once her vision of Mars is completely and irrevocably lost. This is an interesting question and I think the resolution of the conflict resonates emotionally. But it happens to soon. Robinson can't resist having his survivors actually reach the Hidden Colony and seeing what has been created. To be me this was redundant and cut across the meaning of the story. The ending could have been simply the inflexible ascetic Claybourne consenting to live for the sake of her husband. That moment contained all of the drama of the novel in a handful of paragraphs. 

Anyway, as I said, endings are challenging.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Meaning of Terraforming

Terraforming is the process of turning a terrestrial body to an environment more suitable for human habitation. There are three planets in our own solar system that commonly mentioned targets of this process in order of increasing viability: Jupiter's frozen moon Europa, Venus, and, of course, Mars. A considerable amount of research has gone into whether or not terraforming is achievable or practical. One can also easily find debates on whether or not terraforming is morally or ethically supportable. A significant portion of the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson revolves around just that question. Moholes, genetically engineered lichens and deliberate meteoroid strikes are all described as techniques to add a few more millibars of atmospheric pressure, a few more degrees of heat to a cold, dead wasteland.


I'm less sure of the thought given to what terraforming means in literature such as Red Mars. When an author or director or screen-writer includes terraforming within a story, what is the message?

Well, certainly there are plenty of examples of terraforming mentioned in popular culture that are more or less just that: references. When terraforming is mentioned in a Sy Fy movie or Aliens, it functions on an essentially practical level of a certain type of speculative fiction. In order to walk around an alien planet, something needs to have happened to the atmosphere and temperature to allow them to move around free of a pressure suit. That something is terraforming. The significance ends there.

But not all literature lets terraforming so quickly off the hook. Ursula Le Guin suggests parallels with colonialism and imperialism in her work. And Robinson portrays an exhaustive debate on the topic in his trilogy. The basic question: when we seek to make another planet Earth, what does that say about us?

As a quick sketch I would offer three interpretations for the significance of terraforming the Mars Trilogy. 1) Terraforming is really about the environment and more specifically what we are doing to the environment currently. 2) Terraforming is personal growth on the individual level writ large. 3) Terraforming is a metaphor for societal progress generally.

I'll take each in order. First off, there's the notion that when we talk about terraforming what we're really doing is talking about Earth. I feel that any discussion of terraforming is really a metaphor for the kinds of ecological changes going on in our own planet currently. We are in a sense de-terraforming Earth right now. By injecting vast amounts of paleozooic carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, it might be said we are making our atmosphere just a bit more like Venus'. In classic speculative fiction transference, authors use terraforming to place our own contemporary actions in relief.

Another consideration is terraforming as an allegory of redemption on a personal level. The change of Mars in Red Mars certainly reflects, to a certain extent, the development of characters in the narrative. As Mars warms up, the tensions, conflicts and open conflict of the characters also increased. Heat added to a system also increases entropy. Ultimately a Mars slightly more suitable for human colonization is a Mars more suitable for human war. But on top of that, Red Mars describes an entire menagerie of exotic genetically engineered lichens and algae introduced onto the surface of Mars with the intention of building up bio mass. This serves the interests of Saxifrage Russell in his quest to terraform Mars by any means necessary but it also ties into another theme of the book which is unexpected change. Robinson views Mars, on the sociological level, as a place of tremendous change for culture in general. One of the heroes of the novel is John Boone, the First Man on Mars, who preaches a view of Mars separated from the old evils of Earth. Free to strike off in new directions. The mutated life that creeps across the deep hidden canyons of Mars supports this idea. Change in human society happens at an inexorable but barely perceptible rate.

A related idea is that terraforming is in self a symbol of reform and progress. A Hegelian would certainly embrace the philosophy of terraforming as it introduces a practical, tangible theology to human effort. Where it is a good thing or bad thing to impose an Earth like ecosystem on another planet it is certainly a process with a definite outcome spanning decades, perhaps centuries. This is the definition of progress. Successful terraforming's largest effect might not, when all is said and done, be the creation of a new home for the human species. A more durable change would be as an example of positive change over reality through conscious concerted effort. 

Any effort to terraform Mars would cost trillions upon trillions of dollars and take anywhere from 200 to 10,000 years. In practical terms terraforming is not going to happen anytime soon, certainly not in any of our (normal) lifespans. There are aspects of Robinson's Mars Trilogy that are clearly meant as a thought experiment on how might the human colonization of the Red Planet proceed. What is clear to me having read Red Mars is that terraforming happens in the story for reasons beyond simple narrative convenience. Terraforming in speculative fiction might have more to say about changing us than it does about other worlds.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Arisia Panel

I was super excited this morning to see my listing for Arisia 2013: World Building in Role-playing Games. This was one of five panels I applied to, and probably either second or third in terms of my preference (there is a panel on the Future of School with my good friend David Nuremburg that I was angling for but alas as of now it appears to have not happened).

World Building is one of my favorite aspects of role-playing actually, the one the I spend the most time on and the primary reason I don't actually play characters as much. I paint maps, I construct histories, I build languages, I tinker with vanilla RPG rules to accommodate newly made races. I think one of the reasons I consider role-playing fun and writing a craft is with RPG's I'm devoting all my energy on things that I do not consider work at all. Writing, with the messy collisions of characters and plot, is more of a challenge. A good challenge but still...

I will be posting more about the panel, what I'm reading and thinking about, as Arisia approaches but for the moment my thoughts center on the use of indie RPG's like Microscope, Universalis, and Prime Time Adventures to set up worlds that are later fleshed out in crunchier systems (DnD, Burning Wheel, etc.) I realize not everyone plays RPG's for the purpose of creating fictional worlds but that's certainly the perspective I'm going to bring.


Thursday, December 6, 2012

A look back at Red Mars


Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson was published in 1993 so in reading it I was very curious to see how how well the book has aged. I would argue pretty well but especially in terms of Mars itself, the book remains remarkably close to what seems to be the developing understanding of both the planet itself and the feats of engineering required to reach it. Partly I think this comes from the conservative approach to the planet and its exploration. Right off the bat, Robinson takes the very measured and, even today defensible view that Mars does not have and never had life even in microbial forms. While rovers and probes sent to the red planet are increasingly finding evidence of a warmer, wetter past, the evidence for carbon based life is highly debatable. More on that later.



Looking back to 1993, it's interesting to see how the book was received given the views about space exploration common to the time. The book would have been written primarily during the first Bush administration and one of H.W.'s biggest efforts to confront the "vision thing," was a massive effort to interplanetary space exploration. The plans were very ambitious: an international space station, a return to the Moon (permanently) and an eventual push to land a man on Mars. 


Check out this video for cheesy sub-Babylon 5 CGI and quick summation of the rhetoric of the time. Sorry about the audio quality.

Now more than twenty years later, what we have is a space station. Partly this resulted from a very discouraging figure that came out of budget analysis of the proposed Mars mission. With the expected cost structure of NASA, any trip to the fourth planet was expected to run to $450 billion. Even during the relatively profligate early 90s, this was a monstrous sum of money and one that quickly drove the agency to shelve much of the mission. The Clinton administration merely presided over the funeral of the Mars mission by scrapping everything but the ISS. NASA drifted for nearly a decade until 2003 when the second shuttle disaster kick-started the second Bush to propose a new Mars initiative. I am not one to casually give W praise and I'm not going to start now. His typically feckless directives did little to make a Mars mission reality. I'm not sure it was ever anything other than a useful publicity stunt anyway: Look people I'm not all about death and taxes! I like space too!

Whatever.

The Obama administration largely abandoned Bush's Moon plans and redirected NASA to land on an asteroid in preparation for a mission to Mars in the 2030s. I like Obama, voted for the guy, but this plan is not serious. Take a look at Mars Direct for a vision of space exploration that gets us to Mars now with existing technology without busting the budget. Better yet, look at the various companies like Space X for a look at how Americans are most likely going to reach the other planets. Travel to other planets has to be cheap and its has to be ready in the next decade; anything else is just media-bait. Elon Musk's interview with Wired seemed to me particularly encouraging but I'm sucker for this kind of thing.

Back to Red Mars. Once you take in the sketch of the past two decades, it's clear how the vision of Martian exploration Robinson described went off the rails. After a few days of reflection, the novel's connection to the time it was written is more clear. The newly ascendent American superpower of 1993, vanquisher of communism, liberator of Kuwait, makes a strong appearance in this book. It's clear Robinson expected American supremacy to go unchallenged for considerably longer, and that big government support of the space program would survive into a second Bush term. 

I was also curious about the Mars Robinson described. How has that fared? This has been arguably more prescient. As I said, Robinson is nothing if not cautious in his portrayal of Mars. He essentially took the barren lifeless view of Mars the Viking Landers presented and made it canon. This is actually a bold move and a risky artistic choice if you think about it. Not three years after Red Mars, the Allen Hills meteorite find seemed to suggest that 3.6 billion years ago Mars had bacteria on it. I think the consensus never really formed around that interpretation however. Neither Opportunity or Spirit found much supporting ancient Martian life. The anomalous carbon or chlorine sample aside, Curiosity hasn't dredged up much evidence yet either. So, Robinson's view of a lifeless rust desert has weathered quite well. 



I'll devote more space to Terraforming in another post but I'll close my look back at Red Mars by referencing a recent article from the Chinese space agency. It's clear that America isn't the only game in town anymore. As NASA suggests, any trip there with American astronauts will have to be multi-national in character. That is not the case with the Chinese, they seem bent on leaving the gravity well on their own by any means necessary. The rise of China is one of the aspects of the geopolitics of Red Mars Robinson most clearly missed the boat on. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Falling into History

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson is a lot of things but primarily what strikes me is its insistence on being a novel. Not a book. Not a 'read.' Not a pulp tale or an epic space opera. Robinson clearly wanted to create something like the War and Peace of Speculative Fiction. Judged from that standpoint it would be tough to say Red Mars is perfect. Much like the only other book I've read from Robinson, Years of Rice and Salt, the first book of the Mars Trilogy has a reach that somewhat exceeds its grasp. However, I'm not going to judge this book against Tolstoy and I'm not even going to talk about it being Steinbeck in spacesuits.

Red Mars is about newness. It's about the future that most fiction that calls itself science fiction is not.



Every single paragraph stretches to say something original. The word 'novel,' comes from the idea that a book should talk about what is new. That's what novels once aspired to do. Not so much in style, but in raw content. I've heard novels described as applied philosophy, which certainly fits in this case. I'd go so far as to say the book is about ideas themselves as much as it is about a ruddy desolate planetary neighbor. And because the world it's set on is inherently dead, inherently empty, the thoughts and dreams of its characters loom large in the overall story.

I can anticipate a few posts about this actually. Reading a Robinson book is an experience of diving into depths of grand beliefs and swimming around in them for 500 pages. While Red Mars certainly builds to an appropriately operatic Götterdämmerung in its final two chapters, for two thirds of the story, we are listening in on very intelligent and passionate people talking about abstract things they care about deeply. We are soaking up the ancient and silent ambience of Mars which means quite a few passages about some colossal valley on planet's southern hemisphere or the way ice looks on the surface. Or how the wind blows. Or the many varied way Robinson describes rust colored ground.

We hear about machines and imperatives of terraforming Mars, how this would be done, why it's necessary. Robinson's mouth piece in this is Saxifrage Russell, a scientist with somewhat obscure ethics and an unshakable vision of a more habitable Mars. But, through a character named Ann Claybourne, Robinson also presents the ideals of the "Reds," or people who come to oppose terraforming and human settlement of the fourth planet generally. Robinson doesn't really come down on either side ultimately but I think he very deftly sets a system in motion, an intricate thought experiment, that cannot help but arrive at a certain result.

Beyond those two extremes, the story also concerns itself with what amounts to a Cain and Abel story retold for the 21st Century. Abel is John Boone, The First Man on Mars, the first American astronaut to reach Mars' surface, who exudes an earnest and jovial optimism in the creation of a truly Martian human race. Cain is Frank Chalmers who mouths the ideals of Boone while deploying infinitely more Machiavellian methods to achieve an independent Mars. It's not much of a spoiler to reveal the result of this particular conflict as Robinson settles Boone's fate within the first chapter. I wish this conflict was more developed to be honest.

Overall, it's the desire to tell something new that's the greatest strength of the story. To tell a fundamentally Martian story for an audience that is unlikely to ever go to the place is an impressive achievement. It was written 20 years ago, and only dated in its optimistic timeline for interplanetary exploration. The problems of warring nations, boundless greed, overpopulation, environmental collapse and transnationalism are perhaps more familiar now than they were at the end of the Cold War. What really rings true though are the pages after pages of arguments on things I wish people cared more about. If you're like me and bored of people talking about 'cuts,' 'taxes,' and 'entitlements,' like these were the only things worth debating, Red Mars might be a welcome.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Progress

Stories don't really follow directions very well in my experience. They jump in lines, shove other ideas out of the way. They barge right up to and demand to have an audience. Sometimes this works, the story says its piece and I can't shake the idea behind it until I've written it all down. Other times, when I set about trying to capture whatever manic energy attracted me to them in the first place I find a big emptiness.

My current story is definitely a budger. I wanted to spend some more time developing the world of the story, the back ground. But I barely set down the characters when the voice started to pop into my head. So now I'm nearly 2500 words and just trying to keep up. 

It's funny how things go.




Monday, December 3, 2012

Thoughts on Complex Organic Chemicals

It's a little early to say whether or not Curiosity's discovery of complex organic molecules constitutes a let-down or not. I think whenever information is teased in this way to the public: 'oh, the rover found something, but we can't tell you what it is just yet,' there's bound to be a feedback loop of speculation, official silence, and then even more speculation. The first rumors of organic chemicals quickly became sigs of microbes became like actual Martian fossils, right there on Mars! Now we're back to chemicals that might be organic. So, that's something. Unless it's just contamination from Curiosity itself which is always a concern.



I am actually ambivalent about the whole question over life on Mars. If we find it, of course that would be an enormous discovery, mind-blowing really. But if we never find life, I think in someways that might be nearly as significant.

The discovery of life on Mars would suggest that life is in somewhat common in the universe. In our own solar system, two worlds with very different histories and geologic make-ups, would have both produced life. The odds would dramatically tilt in favor of other discoveries. The universe might become a little more full and also just a little more crowded. It would be very a very important discovery.

However, just for a moment, consider the alternative. Suppose life is not so common and Mars is but the first in a long future history of disappointments. What would that mean? Well, for one thing I could touch upon a piety I've heard more than once that it might help this species understand just how rare and precious this planet is. Maybe just maybe we wouldn't be in such a rush to pump out even more hydrocarbons if we had the suspicion that we are it. Alone in the universe. If there is no other life out there to pick us up if we ruin our home world maybe we should take care of things a little better. 

But what I really think is that a Mars empty of life is what Kim Stanley Robinson proposed, an irresistible real estate opportunity. Nature abhors a vacuum and Mars is a lot of empty land. I guess that might sound a little crass but I've never had a problem with the notion that Earth is not the be all and end all of this species. The capability to leave this planet is a nearly unassailable moral imperative to do so. 

Although judging from this article, it's an open question about who will be doing the exploring.