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30th January 2017

11:24am: Culcha Waw
Yes, friends, we are in a cultural war, but it isn't any of those that the right wing pundits try to define, neither between liberal and conservative, nor between Christian and non-Christian, nor between

The real culture war is between those who hold to radical, fundamentalist ideologies of any kind, and sane people.

And the crazies, I'm sad to say, are winning.

They are winning because their storyline is easier for lazy minds to follow.

They are winning because there are no depths they will not stoop to, no tool they will not use, to forward their agendas.

They are winning because we can't believe they'll really go there; but over and over again, they do.

They are winning because we have scruples and they have none.

They are winning because they have absolute belief that they are right and everybody else is wrong.

I am very, very afraid...

23rd January 2017

6:57am: Deeply regretting
...the passing of Maggie Roche. RIP beautiful voice.

19th January 2017

5:33pm: Read: A Martian Odyssey and Other Science Fiction Tales, by Stanley G. Weinbaum (2017-4)
Either you know the story of Stanley G. Weinbaum, or you don't care. If you fall into either of those categories, skip the next two paragraphs.

In those dark days when science fiction was mostly rubbish about robots and slavering aliens menacing beautiful women in brass bikinis, and their (white, heterosexual, cis) male saviors - in those days, I say, an unknown writer named Stanley G. Weinbaum published a story called "A Martian Odyssey." It was far advanced over much of what was being published at the time, featuring alien creatures who were truly _alien_, with life cycles and desires truly different from our own.

Weinbaum, for the next couple of years, produced a great variety of sf stories, sometimes as wildly creative as "Odyssey," sometimes ... not ... He died very young, of cancer, shortly before the (first) "Golden Age" of science fiction would make the kind of thing he had done more common, even _de rigeur_.

This volume - part of a series curated by Sam Moskowitz in the 1970s - collects all the short fiction Weinbaum is known to have written in his short life. Some of it feels very, well, _dated_ - not surprisingly, after 80+ years - but many of his ideas still glitter with the real gold of the stfnal imagination.

Yes, women are - by and large - relegated to traditional roles. But there are a number of stories where women have power and at least one ("The Revolution of 1960") where gender is bent, as much as could be safely done in popular fiction of the 1930s.

Weinbaum came up with original ideas that other writers would mine for decades, and indeed some that they still do. Yes, there are a few stories with space pirates and suchlike, but for every traditional heroes and villains" story there are two that aren't, from "Odyssey" itself to the silly little "Graph" (a story that in many ways could have come from the pen of the mature Heinlein). Weinbaum was an early "hard science" writer, in that he made serious efforts to get his science right, or to at least handwave appropriately when current scientific belief would impede his story.

But in honesty, most of these stories are more of historical interest than anything else. They won't impress people who've cut their teeth on Iain Banks or Ursula Le Guin, Samuel Delany or Gene Wolfe. They are _simple_ in ways that a modern writer of sf really can't get away with. They have no real depth of meaning. They do not challenge anybody's cherished beliefs. They aren't often very funny, and when they are, it's a kind of hokey, old fashioned humor.

But for those (like me) who cherish a historical sense of where sf has come from, who believe that this sense provides an additional layer of depth when considering where it is going now, this is quite an enjoyable read.

9th January 2017

12:48pm: Read: My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business, by Dick Van Dyke (2017-2)
Dick Van Dyke is just one of those people who has always been there in my life. Now in his 90s, he's starred in so many things that were formative to my childhood (his titular show, _Mary Poppins_, _Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang_...) and even my adulthood that he's like someone I actually know, except, of course, that I don't.

Finding out that he'd written an autobiography ... and that I could get it on Kindle for not-too-much-money ... was a delight. Now having read it, it still is.

The writing style is just a _little_ bit flat: but if you can hear his voice saying the words, which I did after a while, the flatness disappears. It's written exactly the way Dick Van Dyke talks.

So. He was born in 1925 and grew up in the Midwest. He served in the Air Force and discovered that he had a gift of making people laugh; when he left the military, he went into show business and, seventy years or so later, is still there.

The book is revealing without being tell-tale-y. That is, he mostly tells on himself: his smoking problems, his drinking problems, and the affair that led to the end of his marriage. No scandals about other Hollywood stars here ... which is very much in keeping with Van Dyke's character. He started out as a "good boy" who seriously considered going into the ministry; overall, he stayed that "good boy" despite some trespasses, and stood seriously by a commitment made early on that he would never appear in a show he'd be embarrassed to take his children (grandchildren ... now great-grandchildren...) to.

To be clear, this book isn't a laugh fest. That is, there are laughs, and plenty of them, but they aren't the heart of the book. The heart of the book is Van Dyke's portrayal of himself, which seems honest enough.

5th January 2017

3:26pm: Seen: Moana (2016)
So this is and is not a very typical Disney animated film. That is, it is, but it plays with the idea that it is a typical Disney animated film, most notably in a conversation where the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) tries to prove to Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) that she is a princess, naming the clichés of Disney Princesses right down to "cute animal sidekick." (As a side note, the rooster Heihei [Alan Tudyk] is not terribly cute, unless you are the sort of person who considers Bill the Cat cute.)

What it's mostly about is responsibility. Moana, daughter of Cheif Tui (Temuera Morrison) and Sina (Nicole Scherzinger), longs to sail "beyond the reef," but Tui has forbidden any of the villagers from doing so. Her parents continually chide her for her oceanic fascination and try to guide her to accept her responsibilities as the chief's daughter.

When the crops fail and the fish fail and even the coconuts fail, Moana, urged by her dying grandmother (Rachel House), sneaks off to sea to find the demigod and set right an ancient wrong that is blackening the world. Well, the demigod has an ego the size of the Big Island, and all he's interested in is getting his magic fishhook (which lets him change shape) back. But the Ocean (very much a character in itself) has chosen Moana to perform this quest, and it isn't putting up with any guff from a demigod. He has to learn to take responsibility for his actions, and he does.

Some of the songs are brilliant, like Maui's "Thank You" and the hilarious "Shiny" (sung by the coconut crab Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement). Some are not so much, but none of them are bad. There's a Broadway musical just waiting to be adapted here. And the soundscape is simply wonderful.

All in all, a B+/A- film on the Disney scale.
3:09pm: Read: The Man Who Talled Tales, by R.A. Lafferty (2017-1)
Well, I'm told that this ebook, from an uncertain source, comes from R.A. Lafferty.

Certainly it contains a number of stories that I recognize and associate with that name, as well as a couple of semi-stand-alone chunks out of the "Argo/Devil Is Dead" novels. But I'm pretty sure it's not an official publication of the complete short stories of RAL.

There are over 200 stories in this file, and to even attempt to go through them one by one would be deepest insanity - even to categorizethem is pretty much hopeless. What they all have in common -- no: what they all are,, is Lafferty stories, and Lafferty was sui generis. Possibly even sui two or three generises.

(Neil Gaiman once wrote that trying to write a Lafferty-esque story was much harder than it looked. I have no reason to doubt him.)

Well, what Lafferty mostly wrote about was ordinary exceptional people under normal unusual circumstances. If that doesn't make sense to you, go read a few Lafferty stories and find out for yourself. Even his titles have a certain ring, from "About a Secret Crocodile" to "When All the Lands Pour Out Again," by way of "Le Hot Sport," "Nine Hundred Grandmothers," and "Slow Tuesday Night." You get the idea. Or maybe you don't, in which case I'm afraid there's no help for you at all.

Weirdly, the closest thing I can think of to compare Lafferty to is Charles Williams, the "third Inkling," but it would be a Charles William on laughing gas. As with Williams, theology, philosophy, and other Deep Things lie beneath the surface of what appear at first glance to be pot-boilers. But where Williams was, sometimes ploddingly, serious about the pots he boiled, Lafferty never seemed to take anything (except for everything) seriously, least of all his own self and his undeniable talent.

He was very Catholic, historically deep, and etymologically unique. There will never be another like him.

25th December 2016

10:06am: Seen: Arrival (2016)
OK, so when a novel or long story is adapted to film, I'm used to seeing them leave stuff out. But all the important stuff from the story is here, and it's what's _added_ that's different: a whole lot of the geopolitical stuff that (necessarily, I think) follows from the premise of Mysterious Alien Spaceships popping up all over the Earth.

The focus of the story is Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a top linguist who is tasked with communicating with these weird aliens. And they *are* weird; both physically - some of the weirdest aliens I've seen in a movie - and mentally. The military wants to know, above all, Why They Are Here?

On the physical sciences side, we have Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist who has the occasional useful insight. And the primary representative of the military is Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who recruits them both.

The frame of the movie runs, roughly, from the aliens' arrival to their departure. But there's a prologue in which we see the birth, growth, and death in hospital of Louise's daughter, Hannah, and here the spoilers begin. Click for the spoilers.Collapse )

At any rate, I recommend _Arrival_ highly, and suggest you see it on the big screen while you still can.

23rd December 2016

11:44am: Read: Head Games (Locke & Key Volume 2) by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
The adventures of the Locke family in the Keyhouse continue.

Bode, the youngest of the three Locke siblings finds yet another magical key: this one allows you to open someone's head, put things in, and take things out. Makes studying for a final easy - just cram the book into your head. Don't like your fears? Just pull 'em out.

But the Head Key can be dangerous, especially in the hands of an enemy - like Zack Wells, a/k/a Lucas Don Caravaggio, a/k/a Dodge, the dead-but-alive enemy of the Locke family who escaped from the well in volume 1. Even without an enemy the damn thing is dangerous: imagine being entirely without fear; it might make you a little ... stupid.

_Head Games_ is actually a little light on plot compared to the first; it seems to be putting things into place in a way that wasn't so evident in _Welcome to Lovecraft_.

Nothing that will stop me from continuing, though. The characters, especially Bode, continue to be engaging and plausible (given their situation). Rodriguez's art is as vivid as one might hope for. And Dodge's actions raise some real chills.

22nd December 2016

3:10pm: Read: Under the Dome, by Stephen King (2016-64)
_Under the Dome_ is Stephen King doing what Stephen King does best: creating a small town with its population of people, good bad and (mostly) mixed or ambiguous, and putting them under hellish stress. This is the golden formula for _'Salem's Lot_, _The Cycle of the Werewolf_, _IT_, _The Tommyknockers_, _Needful Things_, _The Regulators_, and probably some others I've not read (I stopped reading everything SK put out sometime around twenty years ago, mostly from sheer exhaustion).

The small town here is Chester's Mill in Western Main - just north of Castle Rock, where so many King stories have been set. One fine October 21st, an invisible barrier - not really a Dome, but that is what it will be called - drops down over the Mill (as its residents call it), cutting it off totally from the outside world. A very small trickle of fluids like air and water can come through, as can light and sound. Several people die immediately.

Our main more-or-less hero is Dale "Barbie" Barbara, an Iraq veteran and short-order chef, who's trying to leave the Mill when it comes down. because he is on the inside, he is reactivated, and promoted to Colonel, and told to take over the running of the town for the duration.

The problem with this is "Big Jim" Rennie, who, as second selectman, runs the town as his personal satrapy (the first selectman being a likeable tool), and he is having none of it. Rennie thinks of the Dome as a personal challenge and opportunity to protect the town while molding it to his liking. To this end he hires a lot more police - "for the duration."

Rennie's son Junior is a chip off the old block; the first thing we see him do is strangle a girl and hide the body, before he even knows that the Dome has fallen.

The Federal Government, quite plausibly, declares the area off limits to anyone except military personnel, headed by Barbie's old superior, a Colonel Cox. They cut off phone communications to and from the Mill, but leave the Internet in place pending certain conditions. President Obama - one of several real people who come into this novel - promises, the way Presidents do, that no step will be left untaken to free the people of Chester's Mill, and, indeed, the military makes strenuous (if not very rapid) efforts to do so.

A large part of the story is simply the conflict between Barbie and his allies, as underdogs, and Rennie and his allies. Bad things happen. Many people die, and there is a huge blowoff that is well rooted in the foregoing plot.

One problem with a novel like this is that the mystery of the Dome is far more satisfying than any possible explanation of where it came from and why. King does the best he can, and I doubt anyone else could do much better, but the secret of the Dome was bound to be a disappointment from the git-go.

(Indeed, several of King's major works - notably _The Stand_ and _The Dark Tower_ - are marred by disappointing denouements, despite their fascinating characters, extraordinary pacing, and compulsive readability...)

Well, it's a damn good read and was well worth the eleven days it took me to read it...

21st December 2016

7:11am: Happy Jul!
That is all. We now return you to whatever you were doing, which is probably reading your friend feed.

16th December 2016

8:44pm: Heard: The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde (2016-63)
Picked this up from Librivox and listened to it as I drove: perhaps not the ideal circumstance for a book where style is, if not everything, at least very important. But enjoyed it anyway.

The story is, and is not, what someone who hasn't read it thinks it is. Yes, it's about a guy who has a painting that gets old instead of him. But it's much more than that: it's about a soul gradually damning itself.

The scene opens on Lord Henry Wotton (an upper-class cynic) and Basil Hallward (a painter of some note) discussing things in Basil's studio and garden - in particular, a young Dorian Gray, who has been modeling for Basil and with whom Basil is in a kind of love. (There are never really more than the vaguest hints of homosexuality in this book.) Enter Dorian, and Basil completes his masterpiece - a portrait of Dorian Gray.

Lord Henry has a lengthy discussion with Dorian on the wonderfulness of youth, and how Dorian's beauty will open doors for him and then desert him. Dorian, on being gifted Basil's painting, mutters a wish - maybe even a prayer - that he might remain as he is and the picture change instead.

And here's the thing. It isn't so much age, as sin that appears in the picture as the story progresses. It begins when Dorian jilts an actress with whom he has previously been smitten, cruelly, and that night a cruel twist of the lip appears in the picture. Dorian, largely under Lord Henry's influence, gradually goes in for more and more degrading sins - which are not detailed; this is not a pornographic work in any sense - and, despite occasional resolutions to mend his ways, becomes a terrible person indeed: all the while retaining his youthful beauty while the picture grows hideous.

The story's climax is really a few chapters before the end, when Dorian shows Basil what has become of his picture, and its terrible sequel.

Perhaps the finest feature of this short novel is the psychological observation of Dorian's degradation. He blames everyone but himself for it: Lord Henry, a book he reads, the picture itself, even Basil; as well as the victims of some of his sins. There is no mistaking that Dorian is a damned soul, who will take no responsibility for his own damnation. This is, in the end, a supremely _moral_ book.

Of course, everything one knows (or thinks one knows) about Wilde himself colors how one reads his books. One can't help seeing bits of our mythical Wilde in Lord Henry, and in Dorian himself. But Wilde's ability to create and individuate characters overcomes this to a very large degree, and Dorian, Basil, and Lord Henry will remain with me for a very long time.

If you haven't read this...do.

11th December 2016

12:43pm: Read: Welcome to Lovecraft (Locke & Key Volume 1) by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez (2016-62)
Ok, so it's no big secret that the writing half of this team is Stephen King's son, who chooses not to trade on the family name. But, if this is a good example of his work, he's good.

The story of the Locke family begins in summer. Rendell Locke, a high school guidance counsellor in California, is killed by two of his students, Sam and Al. Al is killed in the process, and Sam badly hatcheted.

The family - his wife, Nina, and their three children - Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode - go to live with Rendell's brother Duncan, in Key House in Lovecraft, MA. Here weird things happen - at first, mostly to young Bode, who finds a strange key; with this key he opens a door that, when he walks through it, he dies, but only temporarily. It allows Bode to experience being a ghost, and see things he couldn't otherwise see.

Meanwhile, Sam, with some mysterious help, escapes from prison and begins hitching East...

The tension starts high and ratchets up as the story progresses. The immediate story is complete, but has seeds of a larger story sown.

And the art? Clean and clear, with a slightly washed-out color palette (by Jay Fotos) not at all like the lurid four-color comix of my youth. To call it _beautiful_ might be a slight exaggeration, but it's certainly beyond functional, certainly contributes a great deal to the feel of the story. I can recommend it without hesitation to anyone who likes intelligent horror.

3rd December 2016

5:30pm: Read: Poetic Diction, by Owen Barfield (2016-61)
This is quite a difficult book for me to review, because I'm not really sure what to make of it. I suspect it will take at least one more reading before it really sinks in.

Actually, it is quite possible that Barfield himself wrote an excellent review, as part of is Preface to the book's second edition (1951 - the original being from 1928):
...[T]his book grew out of two empirical observations, first, that poetry reacts on the meanings of the words that it employs, and, secondly, that there appear to be two sorts of poetry... Thus, it claims to present, not merely a theory of poetic diction, but a theory of poetry: and not merely a theory of poetry, but a theory of knowledge.

Yes indeed, Barfield attempts all that, nor am I ambitious enough to summarize the theory of poetry that he takes 225 pages to unfold. I can, however, mention some of its salient features.

First, that he distinguishes between poetry and verse. Poetry, for Barfield, is a quality of language: poetic diction, as opposed to prosaic diction, either of which may appear in verse or prose form.

Poetic language, poetry, he suggests, is language that creates new meaning for (at least some of) the words it uses.
When words are selected and arranged in such a way that their meaning either arouses, or is obviously intended to arouse, aesthetic imagination, the result may be described as poetic diction... Meaning includes the whole content of a word, or of a group of words arranged in a particular order, other than the actual sounds of which they are composed.
Indeed, Barfield eschews discussion of things like rhyme, alliteration, and so on, except passim in service of other birds he is hunting.

A great deal of the book is given over to a proposed revision of the commonly-held theories (as of 1928) of how language arises, and of how words "create" meaning in the mind of the reader/writer/speaker/hearer. He does not explicitly rejects, but thoroughly criticizes, the philological assumption that all modern languages are grown from simple linguistic "roots," suggesting that out grancestors actually had much more capacity for abstraction in language than we give them credit for - and, at the same time, much more capacity for concrete specificity.

He suggests that words that seemed to have two meanings - such as the Latin verb "ruo," which is translated (depending on context) either as "rush" or "fall." It may be, he says, that to the Latin mind, there was a single meaning -- a single concept that has relationship to both, but is not either of, the modern concepts "rush" and "fall." He traces one of the word's English descendants, ruin, through a series of meaning-concepts it has represented over the centuries.

I can't really grok his conclusions very well; as I said, I shall have to reread this book at some point. But it has something to do with the idea that poetic language occurs precisely when the speaker/writer says/writes something that the hearer/reader finds "strange" -- for a variety of meanings of "strange," which however basically come to "the hearer/reader is given a new way of seeing something."

30th November 2016

7:48am: Seen: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
So I went in with hopes but very little in the way of expectations. Rather to my surprise, I quite liked it.

The plot is a mess, but a happy one; two stories which seem to have very little to do with each other clash.

In the seeming main story, British wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) comes to New York on a mysterious errand. His one suitcase contains a pocket universe filled with magical creatures. Naturally, it gets switched with the seemingly-identical case of one Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a "No-Maj" - or Muggle - who works in a candy factory, and wants to open his own bakery. After hijinks in a bank, Kowalksi walks off with the magical suitcase, while Newt walks off with Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an ex-Auror demoted to the wand registration office, who arrests him for not obliviating Kowalski (who has seen Things He Should Not).

Three Fantastic Beasts get out of Newt's case, and the apparent foreplot - which is over about halfway through the movie - is about his, and Kowalski's, attempts to capture them, with lots of physical comedy. Along the way, Tina's sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) is quite taken with Mr. Kowalski.

Meanwhile, one Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) is preaching in the streets of New York about the evils of witches who Walk Among Us. Her adopted children, including Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove), Chastity (Jenn Murray), and Credence (Ezra Miller), distribute her leaflets. She is a cruel "mother" and punishes them regularly, especially Credence.

While she seems at first a nutcase, it turns out that there are things praying on No-Majjes in New York. Mr Graves (Colin Farrell), the head Auror or something, sends Aurors out to destroy whatever-it-is...but he has mysterious connections with Credence Barebone, and seeks someone called "The Child."

Well, it all ties together -- naturally -- and before all is done Newt encounters the President of America's Magical Congress (Carmen Ejogo) and the villainous Grindelwald (the inevitable Johnny Depp).

Production deisgners Stuart Craig and James Hambidge have done a lovely job of giving the movie a look and feel appropriate to the time and place (New York of the 1920s or 30s). There is a nice contrast between a slightly washed-out look to the Muggle/No-Maj world and a very colorful magical world, especially inside Newt's suitcase.

The acting ranges from good to excellent. The standout actors in this production are Fogler and Sudol, who carry an entertaining subplot on their very capable shoulders. Redmayne is, for some reason, made up to look like Matt Smith as the Doctor, which I found distracting at times, but handles his role with some real passion. Colin Farrell is a delight. And Johnny Depp is, fortunately, used minimally, and playing Grindelwald quite straight.

I must give Rowling credit. After the mess that was Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I had very little expectation of her ability to create a worthwhile new story in the Potterverse. Perhaps because she wrote it herself, unlike Child, Beasts does hold together as a story (or two stories). There might be hope for this trilogy.

25th November 2016

8:58pm: Read: The Long Cosmos, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter (2016-60)
This is the climax of the "Long Earth" series conceived of by Pratchett, revived in a dinner conversation with Baxter, and collaborated on by the two of them. The opening conceit of the series is that there are an, apparently, infinite number of Earths which can be reached by "stepping," and humans evolved only on this one, the Datum Earth. So if you stepped in either direction ("East" and "West"), you would find, at first, primeval forest. Things got weirder the farther you got from the Datum.

(Iron is the only element that cannot cross between Earths. Pratchett and Baxter never explain how human hemoglobin isn't destroyed the first time a human "steps"...)

Things also got weirder as the series went along. Previous volumes have introduced a wide cast of characters, most of whom appear in _Cosmos_. _The Long Earth_ introduced the original "stepping box," powered by a potato. In _The Long War_, trade by airships capable of stepping becomes commonplace, and human colonies begin to declare their independence from the Datum. _The Long Mars_ introduced a second string of worlds, independent of the Long Earth; and also introduced the Next, our successors. And _The Long Utopia_ is mostly about the relationships between the Next and the "Dimbulbs," plus bonus! dangerous alien machines.

_Cosmos_ begins with the nearly-universal receipt of a message from space: JOIN US. The superintelligent Next begin working on decoding the technical content of the message, while humans, trolls, and beagles (a race of humanoid, intelligent dogs from millions of Earths out) are caught up in the debate over whether it's even good to answer the message, particularly in light of what happened in _Utopia_.

Meanwhile, the series' main characters, Joshua and Nelson, both find themselves unexpectedly grandfathers - Nelson in a mysterious communication from the AI Lobsang, and Joshua when his estranged son Rod comes to rescue him from a distant Earth where he has been gravely wounded. Before all is wrapped up, something comes to be known of the nature and purpose of the Long Earth, and humans travel to the stars.

It's all good fun, and if it isn't as full of ha-ha as Pratchett's solo books (or his collaboration with Neil Gaiman, _Good Omens_...), it's lighter than most of Baxter's solo work. I'm delighted to say that the series maintains its quality throughout, and ends on a high note.

24th November 2016

7:23pm: Seen: Doctor Strange (2016)
I am not the first, I am sure, to call this the best Marvel CU movie since the first _Avengers_ -- though I've missed a couple along the way, so for all I know _Deadpool_ may be better, though I kind of doubt it.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Bandersnatch Cummerbund) is one of the world's leading neurosurgeons. An auto accident, caused by his own carelessness, costs him the use of his hands. Well, not entirely, but they are shaky and weak and quite incapable of operating on patients; and a series of surgeries fails to restore them. In desperation, he seeks out a former patient who sends him in search of Kamar-Taj, a secret place in Kathmandu.

Here he meets Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who guides him to Kamar-Taj, and becomes his champion with the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who is the Sorcerer Supreme. The Ancient One rejects him at first, but eventually takes him on as a student sorcerer. His mind rejects sorcery at first; but he is led to become a promising student. He also meets Wong (Benedict Wong), an ass-kicking librarian.

In the meanwhile... The Ancient One's former protege, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), and his followers, are attacking the Sanctums that protect Earth from the Dark Dimension. (Yes, it sounds cheesy...) There are Sanctums in London, Hong Kong, and New York, and the London sanctum falls. Strange, having activated the artifact known as the Eye of Agamotto, finds himself unexpectedly defending the New York sanctum, and barely succeeds (and, even more barely, survives) due in large part to the Cloak of Levitation, the best bit of seemingly-sentient fabric since the carpet in Disney's _Aladdin_.

Well, of course things get worse, and the Ancient One dies without an heir, and Strange eventually faces the god-thing of the Dark Dimension, the dread Dormammu (motion capture of Brandywine Camelot). Naturally he wins, earning Dormammu's eternal enmity and all that, causing the defeat of Kaecilius along the way. And naturally the final and post-final scenes set up not one, not two, but _three_ forthcoming Marvel movies.

Breadfruit Cucumber is superb as Stephen Strange, playing him with a subdued quirkiness a little (but not exceedingly) remniscent of Robert Downey's Tony Stark. His biggest enemy in this film is not Dormammu or Kaecilius, but his own ego, and he plays to that very well.

Then there's the special effects. They are so over the top that they come back again the other side and produce a very pleasant experience - except that, as in most action/adventure films that use heavy sfx these days, things go so fast and are so flashcutty that, at times, it's difficult to follow the action, though the general gist always gets across.

So. I enjoyed it and will, no doubt, happily pony up my (by then) $15 for the sequel. Good times.

19th November 2016

9:20am: Read: Shadow of Victory, by David Weber (2016-59)
In this, the twentieth book of the main sequence of what was originally the "Honor Harrington" series and is not referred to as the "Honorverse" series, Honor Harrington first shows up about two-thirds of the way through, in one of two token and gratuitous appearances whose removal would not affect the plot in any way; basically, Honor, Queen Elizabeth of Manticore, and others comment, godlike, on the action but don't actually do anything.

In a series which started out space-operatic, there is exactly one space battle. Most of the book's 750 dense pages are given over to political intrigue.

And about the first half of the book takes place before events that have already happened in previous books. This is, as such, okay in a _milieu_ where it takes months for news of events in one place to reach others. What's more problematic, though, is that it rehashes events that took place in those books, admittedly (mostly) from other points-of-view.

The Mesan Alignment sets out to damage the image of Manticore (where our heroes come from) by sending agents to foment rebellions among the Solarian "Verge" planets, making promises that Manticore will provide agents and naval support. Some weapons will show up, giving confidence that the naval support will also - but of course it won't. Not only will this damage the reputation of Manticore among these border planets, it will also hack off the powerful Solarians even more than they already are.

Meanwhile, the Alignment is carrying out "Houdini," their plan to disappear key members of "the onion" (their colorful, if smelly, image for the layers of security around their Real Plan, which has not yet been revealed to us). The way in which this is carried out is clearly intended to impress us with the ruthless fanaticism of the Alignment.

Aaaaand certain elements in the Solarian League continue to take baby steps toward realizing how badly they've been played.

All this takes us through dozens, possibly a hundred or more, viewpoint characters, and hundreds more who aren't. The reader may be excused for being occasionally confused - I certainly was! - and a reader new to the series will probably be utterly lost.

None of which is to say that I didn't enjoy the book. I did; but found it frustrating in a number of ways, and I hope Weber can pull himself out of the rabbithole he's created for himself over the next few books.

13th November 2016

4:37pm: Read: Crawlers, by Ray Garton (2016-58)
The first thing that came to mind when reading _Crawlers_ was, "This is like _Little Shop of Horrors_ -- only much, much darker and nastier."

It isn't, after all. Oh, it's much darker and nastier than _LSoH_; it just isn't much *like* it.

Mt. Crag is a small community, apparently in a mountain range, not too far from Iron City. Take from that what geography you will. One night, after a meteor shower, the good (and not so good - but mostly decent people) citizens of Mt. Crag awaken to find strange flowers growing all over the place. As horror readers, we know that this is Not Good and that the *last* thing the good citizens of Mt. Crag should do is take these flowers into their homes and places of business, which, of course, they do. Soon the flowers are doing very nasty things: much more would be spoliation of what is, after all, a not-very-long story.

Garton writes well, without fuss, and shares with writers like Stephen King the ability to create largish numbers of distinct, believable, and _likeable_ people in a believable community. Nobody in Mt. Crag seems to deserve what happens to their town; they struggle to understand it, but never succeed, and -- well, it's bleak is what it is. We, as readers, end up understanding far more than they do, or can. And we come to care about some of these characters - quite quickly in some cases - and hurt when they are hurt. Or die.

All I will say about the ending is that, in a week where I was already depressed, it didn't help: but then, that's not what I want from horror.

If you want a good horror story, here it is.

1st November 2016

5:01pm: Read: Words Are My Matter, by Ursula K. Le Guin (2016-57)
I have never met a book by Le Guin that I didn't enjoy - no, not even the seemingly-much-disliked _Malafrena_ - and this isn't one either. Le Guin's nonfiction has been special to me since the essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie," which was read aloud to raucous laughter at a Mythopoeic meeting, and pre-destroyed that month's fated, or rather _doomed_, book.

This particular collection of nonfiction, almost all from the actual if not the nominal 21st Century, is divided into three almost-thirds and a final bit.

The first almost-third consists of "Talks, Essays, and Occasional Pieces," on topics ranging from a (most gracious) response to essays on one of her books to her young life in a house designed by Bernard Maybeck, from the disappearing of women writers to animals in fiction, and culminating quite satisfactorily with the now-somewhat-famous short speech Le Guin gave in accepting the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, itself a huge contribution to American letters. These pieces simply sparkle with Le Guin's wit and humanity.

The second almost-third consists of "Book Introductions and Notes on Writers." Not surprisingly, Le Guin appears to have been asked on more than a few occasions to books. It also isn't surprising that most of the books sh'e asked to introduce are sf/f in nature. Here she writes generously of Dick and MacDonald, Wells and the Strugatsky brothers, and several others, including Boris Pasternak and Western writer H.L. Davis. For the books I'd read - most of them - they provided me with new insights; most of the others I now _want_ to read.

The last almost-third consists of "Book Reviews." This was the part of the book I anticipated most and enjoyed least, probably because most of them are very short, three to four pages, and just tease my attention before they're over. This was true of _some_ of the pieces in the earlier sections; but there it was varied with longer and even shorter pieces; here it creates a kind of repetitive rhythm that becomes, for me, a bit tiresome. But again I come away with several additions to my To-Read list, so that's all good.

Finally the "and a final bit" is the exception to the "almost all." In 1994, Le Guin spent a week at the Hedgebrook writer's colony, a place that gives women writers a quiet and peaceful environment in which to escape the quotidian and concentrate on their work. Here, she wrote (it says here) one of the novellas that form the story suite _Four Ways to Forgiveness_, and also a journal. The final bit is the journal. It is very rooted, says almost nothing about her process as a writer, and ties the book together into a whole in a way that I cannot explain, for I do not understand it, but it does.

If you love Le Guin's writing, you will love this book. If not, probably not. But you should at least read the prize speech ("Freedom"). It's very short and you can read it standing in the aisle at the library or bookstore, should you be so lucky as to still live near a bookstore. Or you can watch her deliver it here.

29th October 2016

8:48pm: Seen: The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do The Time Warp Again
This, like almost all Hollywood remakes, was completely unnecessary; and at the same time full of potential. The original RHPS was done on a microscopic $1.2M budget, and this had - well, many times that. It seems to have been spent mostly on sets; the SFX are still cheezy and cheap. As, perhaps, they should be.

Some of what is done right:

Many of the scenes/moments/routines are done with more, well, subtlety than the original - which is, let us be frank (oh, let's), about as subtle as a sledgehammer.

The whole thing is framed with an audience coming to a viewing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The audience is repeatedly shown doing and saying the things RHPS audiences do and say, so there's that little fan appreciation thing which I liked.

Like the original, it mostly features people I'd never heard of before, with four exceptions.

o Dr. Frank-n-Furter is played by Laverne Cox, best known for her role in Orange Is the New Black. It is, I suppose, curious and interesting having Frank played by a real life transsexual, but Cox lacks the same ambiguity Tim Curry lacked: where his Furter was unambiguously male, hers is unambiguously female, which takes away a bit of bite from the song "Sweet Transvestite."
o Eddie is played by Adam Lambert, a singer I respect more than I like. He does an excellent job, but the direction spoils his scene somewhat, and takes away Frank's concluding line.
o Dr. Scott (or should I say ... Doctor von Scott?) is played by Ben Vereen. He too does an excellent job, but it's a little hard taking him for the uncle of the extremely white Adam Lambert.
o And the Criminologist is played by Tim Curry. This is sad; Curry is confined to a wheelchair these days, and his delivery is slow and forced.

Of the other main characters, Columbia (Annaleigh Ashford), Magenta (Christina Milan), and Janet (Victoria Justice) are arguably better than than the originals. Riff Raff (Reeve Carney) lacks Richard O'Brien's amazing gawkiness and his sense of menace.

The one outstanding, unquestionably better-than-the-original actor, then, is Staz Nair, who plays Rocky with far more range than Peter Hinwood did; it was almost worth remaking the movie just for his performance.

But only almost.

The music is a muddled mess, with a few exceptions ("Science Fiction/Double Feature" and "I'm Coming Home" are the only ones that may top the originals). There was an opportunity to update it, and instead they went for a '50s feel that doesn't feel anything like the '50s.

Similarly, there was an opportunity to improve the direction, which, in the original, is merely adequate. In many places, directory Kenny Ortega chose to use a direct, shot by shot, homage/ripoff/copy of the original A more modern approach could have brought so much more to some of these scenes.

And the theatrical audience should have been used more or not at all.

And finally.

The original RHPS is, at this point, something of a guilty pleasure; it was (in its cheezy way) shocking in its day but tame now. The opportunity to bring back its shock value was there, even if it was FoxTV, and they took not one chance with it. And that is why it is not fit to stand with the original.
8:23pm: (re-)Read: 'Salem's Lot, by Stephen King (2016-56)
It's been decades since I last read this book, and I'm surprised by both how much I *do* remember and how much I *don't*. The general plot stayed with me, and a few characters; and a few key scenes are seared onto my memory - not by horror, but by sheer human agony.

I'll not play coy and pretend spoiling 'Salem's Lot is even possible at this point; if you care to read it, you already have.

Perhaps the thing that most stands out for me in the "not remembered" category is the sheer richness of the prose. Stephen King, at this point - and I'm not saying that he isn't now - was a careful craftsman and artist with words. Long and not-at-all-boring passages are spend on psychological and sociological analysis, sheer description, and such. And the book isn't padded at all, the way that some claim King's books to be; everything - and I mean everything - in it is necessary and contributive to the whole effect.

King introduces characters slowly, bringing in some fairly major characters fairly late in the narrative - and yet, somehow, this works. The pivotal character of Father Callahan doesn't really enter the plot till well over half the book is past, and yet he is perhaps the best developed character, with the most interesting and meaningful story arc.

For those who need reminding: he is a middle-aged Catholic priest, slumping into alcoholism, largely due to the banality of his life. He entered the priesthood wanting to fight Evil, and finds himself dealing instead with the dull and repetitive evils that make up so much of human life.

When the Fearless Vampire Hunters come to him, he is more than prepared to believe: he has seen the strange things happening, and he wants to finally fight Evil. And, armed with holy things, he works a minor miracle or two in the fight ... and then gets his comeuppance in a standoff with the head vampire, Barlow. Barlow holds the boy Mark Petrie; Callahan holds up his cross, and it glows brightly and forces Barlow to move back; but he still holds Mark. He offers Callahan a deal: if the vampire releases Mark, will the priest throw aside his cross? To prove his good faith, as it were, he releases Mark.

And Callahan's faith fails him. He does not put down the cross ... and its bright light fades, and Barlow, rather than drinking the Father's blood, forces the Father to drink his.

Returning to his church, he cannot enter. The doors fend him off with blue fire. He leaves the town on a midnight bus, obsessed with his uncleanness...

But hidden in there is Barlow's mocking comment: "If you had cast the cross away, you should have beaten me another night. In a way, I hoped it might be so. It has been long since I have met an opponent of any real worth."

There is a deep morality here that I find very satisfying. Yet so much of the book is about the power of evil, in both its capital-E vampiric form and its small-e banal, human form. There are plot elements which might be described unkindly as soap-operatic, or more honestly as slices of village life. And the main character of the book emerges not as the vampire, nor the Fearless Vampire Hunters, but the village itself, the Lot, which we see in a series of panoramic and close-up images of itself and its people, and if the Lot dies at the end, well, so do all good things in this world. Some see in 'Salem's Lot a condemnation of the people of a small New England town; it seems to me rather a love letter to those people and their towns. While they are flawed and often petty, there is not a real villain among them.

26th October 2016

7:56pm: Seen: Batman vs. Superman - Dawn of Justice (2016)
Sigh. With just a little bit more attention this could have been *such* a good movie.

I shall assume that anybody who actually cares about spoilers has already seen it, so be warned if you haven't and do.

OK: we start with the iconic scene of Thomas and Martha (Lauren Cohan) Wayne being killed by some punk thief, complete with the pearl necklace, in front of their small son Bruce (Brandon Spink).

Next we get a recap of the climactic battle from Man of Steel, from the point of view of an adult Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who sees his building destroyed and, despite his evacuation order, many of his employees killed.

After this, I'm not clear on the sequence of events; it proceeds as a bunch of set pieces whose order doesn't matter very much.

There is a growing conflict between Batman and Superman (Henry Cavill): Batman believes that Superman is dangerous and out of control, while Supes believes that Bats is an outlaw vigilante. Things get worse as Bats gets grimmer, beginning to brand some of his victims captured criminals.

Meanwhile, young Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) has discovered a curious green meteor that destroys Kryptonian cells; but a Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) blocks his attempt to bring it into the country.

Well, and many people are concerned about the big red S, the strange being from another planet. Some see him as a kind of savior. Some protest him as a menace. The government wants to know that he will not go rogue. He accepts a request to appear in front of a Senate subcommittee (headed by Finch), and fails to notice the bomb that kills everyone in the room - except, of course, for himself.

In the meanwhile, Clark Kent is getting in trouble with Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), who wants him to cover football instead of obsessing about the Gotham vigilante.

Somewhere in here, Luthor gets access to the Kryptonian wreck from MoS, and manages to take control of its computer.

Clark and Bruce meet at a party honoring Luthor, where Bruce is attempting to raid LexCorp's files for a clue to the location of the Kryptonite. He meets a mysterious woman (Gal Godot) who also wants those files, for a picture that "belongs to me." When Bruce decrypts the files, he finds a photo of the mysterious woman -- as Wonder Woman, in WWI -- in a file about mysterious "metahumans," including the Flash and Aquaman.

Bruce steals the Kryptonite from LexCorp and builds Kryptonian-killing weapons, setting up the big badaboom of the title. Lex summons Supes -- by pushing Lois Lane (Amy Adams) off a building, one of many times she stars as the Woman In Peril in this film -- and explains that he has Martha Kent, at a location he does not know, but she will be killed if Supes does not bring him the head of the Bat in one hour.

Superman rushes off to Gotham, hoping to enlist Bruce to find his (Clark's) mom. They fight for a while and things get smashed up; then, just as Bruce is about to kill Clark with a Kryptonite spear, Clark croaks out "Save Martha!" which gets Bruce all angsty 'cause that's the name of his dead Mom, as we have been reminded several times during the course of the film. He listens and agrees to save Martha while Clark goes after Luthor.

Set piece of Bats saving Martha.

Luthor, realizing that his plan to make Superman look reeeeally bad has failed, releases the thing that he has been breeding in the Kryptonian ship - "Your doomsday," a Kryptonian rage monster with full Kryptonian powers, plus bonus! hurting it makes it stronger. Wonder Woman shows up to help, and the three core DC heroes fight Doomsday, while Lois goes after the Kryptonite spear Bruce has thrown away. After one more Lois In Peril sequence, Supes retrieves the spear and nearly dies doing it. But determined as he is, he takes it up and flies it into Doomsday's body - and gets stabbed through the heart (his invulnerability being, apparently, weakened by proximity to Kryptonite) by a spike D. grew when WW. cut off his arm. (Did I mention she's a pretty badass Wonder Woman?)

Cue funeral scenes, with no real explanation of how both Clark (in Smallville) and Superman (in, apparently, Arlington) can be buried simultaneously..

Cue Lex in jail, getting his hair cut off and panicking about a worse alien coming - "He's hungry and he's coming" kind of thing.

Cue Bruce telling Diana that he wants her help gathering the other metahumans to work together, because he has a feeling it will be needed.

The end.

So what went wrong?

First of all, I don't begrudge the mandatory Superman-Batman fight sequence, or the way it's resolved. That's the stuff of which comix are made. But dragging in the whole Doomsday/Death of Superman sequence damaged what could have been a beautifully themed movie, about the nature of the responsibility held by these characters for their actions and the things that happen around them.

Because, while both of them are trying to use their various abilities to Do Good, both are right to be suspicious of the other. Batman *is* a vigilante (he even admits that he's technically a criminal); Superman *is* a trouble magnet whose solutions tend to involve massive destruction. For them to have seen each other's points of view and worked out a mutual solution might have been a brilliant denouement to this film.

But, no. They didn't do that. They went for action-adventure and cheap melodrama, and, since we all know that the S will be back, the attempted pathos of the funerals comes off bathetic.

Except for Alfred (Jeremy Irons, who is magnificent in the role), Batman's supporting cast is completely absent, while Superman's is badly mishandled. Perry White is turned into a cynic about the entire newspaper business, who would rather have Clark play it safe than do some real investigative reporting. Lois is the Girl Hostage supreme.

Well, it is what it is, and we can only hope they get better from here. I was a big DC fan as a kid, and even as a grownup, but Marvel has done a much -- much! -- better job of adapting its characters to the big screen, while DC seems to insist on a hamfisted Grim'n'Gritty approach that was cool in the '80s but boring now.


25th October 2016

5:08pm: Seen: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2006)
I don't have a lot to say about this one. It was fun, but not exceptional. It was clever and witty, but not laugh-out-loud funny. It was quirky and, yes, peculiar, but not overthetop weird.

If you don't know what it's about, go look it up. I'm tired.
4:41pm: Seen: Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
This is why I go see movies. Go see it if you still can - it's still playing, here and there. I wanted, at the end, to rise and cheer, I felt so good about it and about the fact that something this wonderful can still make it through amongst the SPECTACULAR!!!S and remakes of remakes. It is, in fact, as close to a perfect movie as I have seen these many years.

The story begins in a storm. A young woman (Charlize Theron) is asea in a small boat, with a shamisen - three-stringed Japanese banjo sort of thing - during a storm. She slashes the strings of the instrument to ward off a great wave; when another comes, she washed up on a beach, along with her package - a still-breathing infant (who is however bleeding from the socket of one eye).

Flash forward several years.

A boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson), who is obviously that baby, wakes and feeds his near-comatose mother in the cave they live in. He takes his musical instrument and many squares of paper to town and tells a story, which he illustrates by magically animating the squares to form origami and act out the parts of the story. The story concerns a brave Samurai and an evil Moon King (Ralph Fiennes, eventually), but - as, it seems, always - he has to cut it off and run home before the sun sets. When he arises and night falls, his mother regains consciousness for a few hours and they are happy-ish together. We learn that Kubo must not, under any circumstances, be out under the moon; and that he must always carry with him a figurine of "Mister Monkey."

Of course, the very next day, during a festival for the loved dead, he does stay out after nightfall. Two masked and sorcerous Sisters come for his other eye, saying that they are his Aunties (Rooney Mara), and his mother shows up just in time to die saving him. Oh, and: she's their sister, too; they are the daughters of the Moon King.

Kubo wakes up in a wasteland, awakened by a Monkey who says she is (a) the figurine, (b) not a Mister at all, and (c) here to protect him. She leads him on a quest for the three pieces of a set of magickal armor which, together, might protect him from the Moon King: a sword, a helm, and a mail jacket. They are joined by a befuddled anthropomorphic Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) , who, apparently, was one of the samurai serving the story in Kubo's tales - his own father. They are attacked repeatedly by the Sisters, but stay on the trail of the armor until Much Is Revealed -- really, nothing surprising to a student of story, but so right that it doesn't matter that it doesn't surprise -- and Kubo alone must face his Grandfather.

The story alone is enough to make for a good movie.

The voice acting - Oh, didn't I mention it was animated? It is - pumps it up a notch. I see I haven't even mentioned George Takei or Brenda Vaccaro: they're in there too.

But what pushes it over the top - way, way over the top - of the heap is the look of the thing. It isn't just animated; it's stop-motion animated, amazingly, with very little CGI and that mostly for environmental enhancement. This is a film by Laika, who made ParaNorman and Coraline, and they don't settle for beautiful.

Put it all together and this is unquestionably the best film I have seen this year.

10th October 2016

8:15pm: Read: Death's End, by Cixin Liu (2016-55)
So this is the end of a trilogy, which means a certain amount of spoilerage for previous volumes is in order. I'll put them behind the clickythingy.

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Cixin Liu is the kind of writer who tosses off ideas in passing that other writers would make into entire series, and there are a lot of ideas tossed off in the course of this trilogy and especially its last volume.

If there's a theme to all this, it's an existential kind of theme: the Universe is a cold and heartless place, indifferent not only to Humanity but to life at all; life will always distrust and destroy life different from itself; and the only meaning to it all is what we make. It's not a cheering view - but it's a bracing one.

Recommended to fans of Clarke, Stapledon, Baxter, and the like.
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