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Showing posts from January, 2013

Django Unchained, unmarked

I really wanted to love this movie. Some of the three or four best movie watching experiences in my life were at Tarantino movies. Not every film is great, but they're always interesting.

Django is not a great movie. It's a lot of fun for a cinemaphile but, in a movie with a substantial gory on-screen body count, it doesn't really draw blood.

Set in the antebellum South, Django (played with admirable swagger by Jamie Foxx) is a slave, freed from a chain gang by a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (a great role for Christoph Waltz). Schultz freed Django for the purpose of identifying three wanted criminals but the two later become friends. Ultimately Schultz agrees to help Django track his wife Broomhilda to a plantation owned by Calvin Candie for the purpose of buying her freedom. It's a Tarantino film, so that synopsis leaves out all the operatic violence, sharp dialogue, and atmosphere that makes one of his films entertaining. It all works really well for m…

Review of Silent Knife by David Nurenberg

I've actually got a bit of history with this one. Full disclosure, this novel, released last year on the White Wolf imprint, was something I've read a few times in the past few years. I've was a beta reader on one of the early drafts and I reread another version of the novel put up as a serial on the White Wolf website.



It's inspiring to see the book finally reach print, especially after all of the various versions appear to have improved and refined the story.
The plot of Silent Knife is steeped in the mythology of the World of Darkness, the fictional noir universe of White Wolf's many role-playing games. Silent Knife focuses more or less on the Masquerade, the treacherous and Byzantine politics of the Vampire world. Ariadne, the eponymous protagonist, is a relative newcomer to this world, changed into a vampire barely a decade previous, negotiating the relentless demands of her Prince, Liliane, during a full-scale rebellion. The leader of the rebellion, Roarke, p…

LSC movie marathon

This years selection of movies is particularly good, WALL-E, Looper, Galaxy Quest and a special surprise from 1967. Everything else is exactly the same about the experience if the MIT sci fi movie marathon: same ticket prices, same theater, same friends, same unbelievably uncomfortable seats. I guess that's part of the charm for me, the perennial, predictable ritual.

LOST Wars

This is my first chance to respond to the big news on the internets today: JJ Abrams signing on to direct the first Star Wars sequel (of the original trilogy). I have to say, my reaction is basically positive. 'El Maesto' of the lens flare gets mixed press but I've never seen anything by him that I out and out hated, I liked the Star Trek reboot a great deal, and even his misses like Cloverfield have a certain degree of puzzle-box charm.



But then, as is probably apparent from a brief check of my current watching habits, Star Wars isn't something I get super worked up about. Don't get me wrong. I like Star Wars, it's a big part of my childhood but I've always been on the fence about what the show is about really. The idea of Luke Skywalker as a timeless expression of the monohero, the duality of good and evil, wookies, it all works a lot better with a healthy dose of sly humor: which is probably why "Empire Strikes Back" is my favorite film.

In add…

Absolutes

As you might have heard, Obama won the election. He's president now which means he gets to write this thing called an inaugural speech. Obama's speech adhered to a few basic American values, enshrined in several famous documents, and wrapped up everything in a nice, 'looking out for the less fortunate,' sentiment. Pretty standard stuff for a Democrat recently reelected by a significant margin.

At no point in the speech does Obama lay out a vision for the arrest of all Republicans. It doesn't call for war crime tribunal for Cheney. It doesn't even call for the repeal of the second amendment. Okay, so let's keep this in perspective when we look at what the Republican reaction was:

"Bereft of outreach to the other side," intones Brit Hume.

"The words were code for a progressive agenda," scolds Darrel Issa. "I'm hoping the president will recognize compromise should have been the words for today..."

"...Shadowbox(ing) a str…

Rock Mining

In another sign that space mining may be, you know, a real thing, check out this press release from a new venture company called Deep Space Industries. Like Planetary Resources (a company backed by Google directors and James Cameron), this company aims to find asteroids and other planetary bodies in the solar system containing valuable minerals and hauling them back to near earth orbit.



I'll let you read the press release and watch the promo video, but this is interesting for a variety of reasons.

First off, the idea of a company using drones and robotic crafts to find and mine asteroids is an important first step to any other serious exploration of the rest of the solar system. It is just incredibly expensive in terms of fuel to lift resources from the surface of Earth into space. Leaving aside the mineral wealth that such rocks might contain, finding an asteroid with water would enormously helpful.  Water wouldn't simply be important for life support in space but, split into…

Arisia Wrap-Report

My first thought, heading into Arisia, was to do a little daily report on what I was up to, panels I'd attended/participated in, that kind of thing. But I personally find it hard to sit down and write when there's a glut of things to see and do.

So instead, recorded for posterity, are my observation from three and a half days of convention:

Friday: mostly hung out with friend +Alex LaHurreau, visited a number of panels, including Science in Politics and World-Building through Soft Sciences. I appreciate a certain type of con panel: knowledgeable people discussing familiar topics in weird ways. I'd say that both of these panels were fine, they talked about the sorts of things I would imagine talking about myself if I was on the panel, but there wasn't much new. I enjoyed Alex's pick of "When Comic Creators Go Off the Deep End," but in retrospect they should have broadened the topic to include other mediums. It turns out there are plenty of crazy comic book…

Arrival at Arisia

So registration was a mad house and my silver line bus broke down at the courthouse station, but I'm here! The room is perfect, and I'm ready to enjoy all the awesomeness coming my way.

I've been thinking for a while about a post listing the most Sci fi sites in Boston, had a few possibilities taking the T to South Boston. First off let's talk about Alewife, one of the most cyberpunk of Greater Boston buildings, the slanted curtain of windows over the ticket area a miniature arcology. Then you have Porter Square which just feels like some kind of Mega-engineering project from Trigun. You see exactly how the station was cored out from the rock around it, practically feel the hundred feet of earth sitting on top of the station.

As mentioned I had an unscheduled lay-over at Courtroom station, clad in chrome and ultraviolet, drenched in ozone from my bus' burning tires. Very William Gibson.

The World Traded Center area itself is a good spot for a Sci Fi convention, t…

World-building for Games

People play tabletop RPGs for all sorts of reasons. Some like the idea of having an alternate persona accomplish great deeds whilst on grand adventures. For others, a role-playing game offers a chance to bring a by-gone era to life, replicating the past with the highest fidelity possible. But for me, what an RPG represents is a chance to cooperatively bring another world into existence.
I'm a writer, so creating new worlds is part of the job description. Even when writing more or less realistic fiction, I enjoy exploring how a certain corner of reality functions, how it is different or similar to my own experiences. But this is a lonely process. I'm creating a world alone knowing full well that no other person may wish to read about it. Additionally, no matter how exotic the world I create is, it can only be a product of my own mind, my own experiences. 
In a Role-playing Game, on the other hand, it is almost impossible to create something individually. Unless I'm handing …

On rails versus Sandbox

As I mentioned yesterday, the first of my two panels at the Arisia SFF convention is on the topic of "on rails" versus "sandbox-style" campaigning in tabletop RPGs. I was initially interested in this panel because I feel as though my own evolution as a game master has moved from one extreme towards the other.
First, let's define some terms. I'm going to assume at some point in your career, someone convinced you to sit down for three or so hours to play D&D. You got a character sheet, some dice, and a mission and that's that. Role-playing games have gone in various directions since the their origins with Gary Gygax and Dungeons and Dragons, but for the most part certain things remain the same. You get a character, you roll some dice, and you go on an adventure. What has changed over time is how the task of telling a story occurs. Mostly in the past, the creation of the story, was the unchallenged responsibility of a single person called the game-mas…

Looking Forward to Arisia

This is a very special week, dear reader; Arisia is nearly here. 



If you do not live in the Greater Boston area, you have perhaps not heard of this institution so let me illuminate you. Arisia is the largest and most diverse Science Fiction and Fantasy Conventions in New England, now in its 22nd year, its fourth at the Westin Hotel. The diversity piece is actually one of the coolest things about the event: unlike Comicon, or a Star Trek Convention, it isn't one particular sub-culture of geek culture, it's all of them. Books, television, films, comic books, RPG, technology, philosophy and counter-culture, you name it. Another peculiarity of Arisia is while the convention does have guests of honor (SFF writers and artists), for the most part the convention is about fans. And the costumes, also the costumes:


Fans come up with the topics for the panels, fans are usually chosen for the panels on all manner of topics and fans run the organization and volunteering for the event. In t…

Pippin: Theater of the Mind

Consciousness is the choice of which abstractions we experience, out of an infinite number of ways of slicing the continuity of the universe. It's the feeling of existence that is the choice.  Jaron Lanier from his essay, "You Can't Argue with a Zombie"



All commercial art forms, movies, books, and theater, resort to necromancy from time to time. As nothing quite indicates future success quite like previous success, Hollywood and Broadway constantly haul treasured works from their graves, animate them with an infusion of fresh blood, and send them to stagger forth into the night in search of dollars. 
Pippin, a very successful musical in the seventies, is currently playing at the American Repertory Theater, according to Mrs Crooks, a springboard for a return to Broadway this Spring. Despite a troubled production, difficult book, and jarring presentation, the original ran for 2000 shows, only ending on the year I was born, 1977. So on one level it's overdue for a …

There should be a word

If you are, let's say, re-watching two television shows more or less concurrently, you might experience a weird sort of conversation taking place between the two shows. Especially if the show come from a similar corner of the pop-cultural universe.

Now watching Star Trek The Next Generation's second season, I got to the episode "Contagion." Quick recap to save you the effort to remember a very forgettable episode: the Enterprise responds to a distress call from the USS Yamamoto in the neutral zone to find her sister ship stricken with mysterious equipment failures. Right after the captain of the ship waves off Picard's suggestion to evacuate the ship, the Yamamoto suffers a core containment malfunction and violently explodes. Subsequently, the Enterprise begins to suffer similar equipment failures throughout the ship, a problem Geordi eventually traces to what amounts to a computer virus. The problem nearly destroys the Enterprise until Geordi tries...

Cut to IT…

Dystopian Desires

John Stewart says it best: "Their paranoid fear of a possible dystopic future prevents us from addressing our actual dystopic present." Stewart was talking about the real reason why gun advocates like the NRA push back so hard on reasonable gun control measures. Fearful people in this country want guns as a safeguard against their own government/society. I grew up in this culture, the dark little secret at the heart of a certain kind of rabid gun collector is they don't want to make sure they have a hunting rifle or that they can fire off a few rounds in a gun range. What they want is a way to stop hordes of undesirables in the event of a total breakdown of law and order.



The irony is, the rampant gun culture in this country, the expectation that the best solution to a problem is violence, probably does more to advance that societal decay than anything.

But I want to backtrack a little bit because there's something a little earlier in this monologue that really reson…

Martian Couch Potatoes

Lot's of reasons to post a link to this article:

Turns out the depiction of the long journey of the Ares in "Red Mars," was pretty accurate.Lends support to the idea that the slow boat to Mars maybe a non-starter. Sorry Zubrin.Seems like the least I can do to acknowledge of the suffering of a crew of astronauts confined to a small room for 520 days and then not even getting to see Mars at the other side.Article.

Reaction on Utopia Versus Dystopia

Are stories about utopias morally superior to stories about dystopias? By writing about futures where governments break down, resources run dry, pandemics run rampant, and zombies wolf down unsuspecting pedestrians, are we making those things more likely to happen?
Give credit where credit is due, +Robert Llewellyn asked a provocative question in his post to the the sci-fi community the other day. Does the preponderance of dystopian, post-apocalyptic (a word he doesn't actually use, but I feel fits his description of most zombie movies) come from the fears of the ruling class (predominantly white, anglo-saxon and rich)? Are these futures presented to us because that's the future the elites fear, one of rapidly reduced power and prestige? 
Robert quickly back-tracked from his question on whether or not dystopias are ever written by the under-privledged. Of course there are, from all over the world. There are also plenty of writers from conservative or elite backgrounds more th…

It's the second act, time to debate the Prime Directive

"When you've gone, will this world continue to exist? Will my wife and kids still be waiting for me at home?" Lt. McNary to Captain Picard in "The Big Goodbye."


Stories need conflict, the tension between what might and might not occur. Some conflicts are immediate and visceral, others are abstract and harder to quantify. Different genres seem to reflexively reach for certain conflicts, certain stereotypical problems. Horror and suspense stories are about danger, unseen threats and fight/flight responses. Romance stories often explore the tension between interpersonal love and societal expectations. People read thrillers and fantasy novels to see super-competent people struggle through unbelievable adversity, their hair consistently un-mussed.
Science Fiction, set on alien worlds, surrounded by mind-bending technology, is well positioned to handle questions of transcendence and the limits of human potential.
Abraham Maslow coined the term self-actualization as …

The Conflict of Competency

Characters have a need to feel competency. Once all of the other basic needs have been met - enough to eat and drink, a sense of security, and acceptance from peers - it is natural for human beings to seek out opportunities to feel good about themselves. To feel important and clever. In literature, this type of conflict is difficult to describe because it tapers away to questions of love and acceptance on the low end and issues of ethics and morality on the upper end. Also, I think many people have a mixed reaction to obviously talented people having those abilities tested. On one hand, professional sports wouldn't exist if we didn't, on some level, enjoy watching talented performers push themselves in competition. But on the other hand, we tend to mock or revile those people who seem too proud of their own accomplishments or too flashy in victory. "Don't spike the football."
This is a tough balancing act for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Put simply, every sin…

Love and Androids

So far this week, I've looked at the two most basic types of conflicts for characters in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation -- physiological needs and concerns over threats and safety. Pressing forward, it's more difficult to make sweeping generalizations about such and such an episode, we have to focus on individual characters and their motivations.



The simplest and most general type of psychological motivation revolves around acceptance and love. Human beings are social animals, and even our fictional creations seek relationships and affection. For the most part, the crew of the Enterprise is presented as a surprisingly well-knit and supportive work place considering that initially most of them are strangers to each other. However, there are tensions that pull the characters away from each other, a reoccurring theme in first season "character episodes."


 Sometimes you can almost guess what's written on each index card for the main character'…

Safety First

This week I'm looking at various types of conflict in speculative fiction. I'm using the first season of Star Trek The Next Generation as a source because I just watched the first season and it's still relatively fresh in my mind. I wish that wasn't so, in some cases.
For this post I want to examine the next step up in Maslow's Hierarchy of Need: concerns of safety. Characters need to go about their life free from a constant looming danger, when placed under threat, they work to remove the threat or remove themselves from its presence. This is different from physiological conflicts because a threat isn't actually lethal. I know in these paranoid times, the merest possibility of danger appears to cause injury and property damage but in actuality the only thing being attacked is one's sense of calm. That's not to say the need for safety isn't real, it's just one step more abstract than fighting to stay alive in a blizzard.
Plenty of examples of th…

Basic Questions of Survival

Yesterday I talked up the idea of 'need-based' conflicts in stories, including Maslow's Hierarchy of Need. The few examples I gave of each level up on the pyramid strike me as inadequate so I'm going to explore each in more detail.
Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season has a reputation for being conflict free, and therefore boring. As I've rewatched the series, slowly making my way through the episodes, I don't think I agree with that entirely. Even early TNG has plenty of conflict but most of it is higher up on the pyramid and is, frankly, not well executed. I see no need to do an episode by episode review, plenty fine surveys exist online, try Jammer's for sober, nicely executed write-ups. Instead, I'm going to bend a fairly mediocre run of shows to a hopefully higher purpose, namely how can a show set in a nearly Utopian future feature compelling, strong conflicts?
I'll start by unearthing the rarest form of conflict in TNG: physiolo…

Humanistic Conflict

I've run into a problem. My current story's conflict doesn't quite have the punch I want it to. I've tried a few different methods to figure out what exactly is troubling the main character or what larger issues are in play, but I'm not there yet. While my story stews for awhile, I thought I'd talk about my dissatisfaction with the standard model of literary conflicts. In other words, let's talk shop.
Usually in literature we say conflict comes in four basic types: man versus nature, man versus man, man versus society and man versus self. This is the model I heard in school and this is the model I teach in my own literature class. You could throw in a few other types of conflicts, depending on the genre, conflict versus supernatural beings or conflict with technology. You might even subtract one of the categories due to ideological preference (Ayn Rand disliked the idea that nature had any choice in a story, big surprise). But for the most part these are t…