Quotulatiousness

July 17, 2017

QotD: Utopias

Filed under: Books, Britain, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

All efforts to describe permanent happiness […] have been failures. Utopias (incidentally the coined word Utopia doesn’t mean ‘a good place’, it means merely a ‘non-existent place’) have been common in literature of the past three or four hundred years but the ‘favourable’ ones are invariably unappetising, and usually lacking in vitality as well.

By far the best known modern Utopias are those of H.G. Wells. Wells’s vision of the future is almost fully expressed in two books written in the early Twenties, The Dream and Men Like Gods. Here you have a picture of the world as Wells would like to see it or thinks he would like to see it. It is a world whose keynotes are enlightened hedonism and scientific curiosity. All the evils and miseries we now suffer from have vanished. Ignorance, war, poverty, dirt, disease, frustration, hunger, fear, overwork, superstition all vanished. So expressed, it is impossible to deny that that is the kind of world we all hope for. We all want to abolish the things Wells wants to abolish. But is there anyone who actually wants to live in a Wellsian Utopia? On the contrary, not to live in a world like that, not to wake up in a hygenic garden suburb infested by naked schoolmarms, has actually become a conscious political motive. A book like Brave New World is an expression of the actual fear that modern man feels of the rationalised hedonistic society which it is within his power to create. A Catholic writer said recently that Utopias are now technically feasible and that in consequence how to avoid Utopia had become a serious problem. We cannot write this off as merely a silly remark. For one of the sources of the Fascist movement is the desire to avoid a too-rational and too-comfortable world.

All ‘favourable’ Utopias seem to be alike in postulating perfection while being unable to suggest happiness. News From Nowhere is a sort of goody-goody version of the Wellsian Utopia. Everyone is kindly and reasonable, all the upholstery comes from Liberty’s, but the impression left behind is of a sort of watery melancholy. But it is more impressive that Jonathan Swift, one of the greatest imaginative writers who have ever lived, is no more successful in constructing a ‘favourable’ Utopia than the others.

The earlier parts of Gulliver’s Travels are probably the most devastating attack on human society that has ever been written. Every word of them is relevant today; in places they contain quite detailed prophecies of the political horrors of our own time. Where Swift fails, however, is in trying to describe a race of beings whom he admires. In the last part, in contrast with disgusting Yahoos, we are shown the noble Houyhnhnms, intelligent horses who are free from human failings. Now these horses, for all their high character and unfailing common sense, are remarkably dreary creatures. Like the inhabitants of various other Utopias, they are chiefly concerned with avoiding fuss. They live uneventful, subdued, ‘reasonable’ lives, free not only from quarrels, disorder or insecurity of any kind, but also from ‘passion’, including physical love. They choose their mates on eugenic principles, avoid excesses of affection, and appear somewhat glad to die when their time comes. In the earlier parts of the book Swift has shown where man’s folly and scoundrelism lead him: but take away the folly and scoundrelism, and all you are left with, apparently, is a tepid sort of existence, hardly worth leading.

George Orwell (writing as “John Freeman”), “Can Socialists Be Happy?”, Tribune, 1943-12-20.

July 9, 2017

Getting closer to science fiction technology every day

Filed under: Health, Science, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

In Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga novels, one of the imagined technological innovations to play a key part in the story is the Uterine Replicator (spoiler: it’s used to save the life of a premature baby, who grows up — in a manner of speaking — to be the main protagonist of the saga). In Reason, Katherine Mangu-Ward looks at just how close we are getting to the gee-whiz tech Ms. Bujold invented some thirty years ago for her novels:

In April, researchers announced they had managed to keep several extremely premature lambs alive and growing in artificial wombs. After spending up to four weeks in a clear plastic “extra-uterine device” at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, each sheep transformed from a decidedly undercooked fetal specimen to a much more robust critter with long limbs and a fluffy wool coat, the sort of animal you wouldn’t be terribly alarmed to see plop to the ground in a field on a spring afternoon.

The setup strongly resembles a sous vide cooking apparatus: a tiny, tender lamb floats in a large plastic ziplock, hooked up to tubes and monitors. But a video clip posted by the researchers has the emotional heft of feeling a fetus kick when you put a hand on a pregnant woman’s belly. Visible through the clear plastic, the lamb’s hooves twitch gently as it snuffles its nose and wiggles its ears.

The lambs in the experiment were selected for their developmental similarity to human babies born right on the edge of viability, or about four months premature. Babies born that early are equal parts horrifying and marvelous. Tiny creatures with organs visible through their translucent skin, they’re often called “miracle babies.” But there’s nothing particularly mysterious about those little beings curled up in nests of tubes and wires; they live because of the inspiration and hard work and risk-taking and study and pain of hundreds of people.

There are actually more of these struggling newborns now than there were a decade ago, simply because we’ve gotten so much better at keeping extremely premature babies — born before 24 gestational weeks — alive. Yet in the U.S., one-third of all infant deaths and one-half of all cases of cerebral palsy are still attributed to prematurity. Of the babies born that early who survive, more than 90 percent have severe and lasting health consequences, especially with their lungs, eyes, and intestines.

Previous efforts to improve those numbers have been stymied by difficulties duplicating the functions of the placenta, but the device attached to the “Biobag” looks deceptively simple: a pumpless blue plastic box hooked up to the umbilical cord that oxygenates the blood, removes carbon dioxide, and adds nutrients.

In their paper, published in Nature Communications, the Philadelphia researchers are careful to say that human applications of their work are at least a decade away. Yet these little pink lambs are already taking sledgehammers to some of the most precarious coalitions in American politics.

June 9, 2017

Charles Stross provides a crib sheet for his latest Laundry novel

Filed under: Books — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

As he’s done for several of his books, Charles Stross gives some interesting background on The Delirium Brief, the latest book in the Laundry series of spies-meet-H.P. Lovecraft stories:

It should be fairly obvious by now that, although initially the stories were set in the same year as publication, the Laundry universe has now dropped behind the real world calendar and diverged drastically from our own history. The Annihilation Score was set during the summer of 2013, in a UK suffering from a surplus of superheroes (or at least extradimensional brain-eater afflicted humans experiencing outbreaks of eldritch powers before their heads exploded: some of whom assumed that donning skin tight lycra and committing vigilante crimes was a sensible reaction to being parasitized). It reached a conclusive and grisly climax in the massacre at the Last Night of the Proms, an annual British cultural event; a horrible event the true nature of which was, nevertheless, suppressed and presented to the public as a terrorist incident not unlike the Moscow theater hostage crisis of 2002. At the end of The Annihilation Score the Laundry’s cordon of secrecy was in tatters but plausible deniability had been maintained—barely.

The Nightmare Stacks takes place in March-May 2014, and is the story of how the continually escalating threats faced by the Laundry finally overcame the agency’s ability to suppress and contain incursions without public notice, and is the first half of a two-book pivot point in the series (the ongoing consequences of the disaster in Leeds continue to the inevitable conclusion in The Delirium Brief); it’s the beginning of the tumble over the cliff-edge leading down to the Lovecraftian Singularity.

And we have a new narrative viewpoint, and sundry new protagonists showing up.

Many readers commented on the absence of Bob from The Annihilation Score and The Nightmare Stacks. Bob is back as the primary (but not the only) viewpoint in The Delirium Brief, but we’ve reached a point in the series where he has to be deployed with extreme parsimony. After fourteen years in the Laundry Bob is, despite his ongoing self-deception, not entirely human: watch what he does, not what he says. In The Rhesus Chart he walked into a nest of vampires and came out with his hair mussed but basically intact. You can’t use a guy like that routinely in an ongoing series without either sacrificing the sense of jeopardy (will our hero survive?) or escalating the threats he faces drastically. So Bob took a break for The Nightmare Stacks and was replaced by a plausible Bob 2.0 — a young PHANG called Alex Schwartz, introduced as a minor character in The Rhesus Chart.

[…]

Spoiler (for the record): The Laundryverse and the Merchant Princes multiverse do not coexist in the same fictional universe. (Who do you think I am, the elderly Robert A. Heinlein?)

June 3, 2017

Wonder Woman – “If this woman were running for any office at all, she would have my vote”

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Kurt Loder clearly enjoyed watching Wonder Woman:

Wonder Woman is a bright, promising start for a new superhero franchise. The picture may be hobbled by familiar genre junk — in the beginning, an overabundance of origin-story narrative clutter; at the end, yet another fiery digital apocalypse — but in finally providing the kick-ass Amazon with a movie all her own (after 75 years of Wonder Woman comics), director Patty Jenkins has created something fresh and stylish — an action-romance that’s unusually light on its feet.

The movie is fueled almost entirely by the flashing, dark-eyed charisma of Gal Gadot, who introduced this Wonder Woman in a cameo in last year’s dismal Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Gadot, a onetime Israeli beauty queen and former IDF combat instructor, has no trouble at all incarnating the warrior princess Diana, a young woman raised in an all-female society on a kind-of-mythical island who ventures into the world of men and is appalled by the violence and gutlessness she finds there and determines to do something about it. If this woman were running for any office at all, she would have my vote.

The movie is also fortunate in having secured the blue-eyed soul-hunk services of Chris Pine, whose romantic chemistry with Gadot is a rare combination of warmth and self-deprecating wit. Pine plays Steve Trevor, an intelligence officer with the American Expeditionary Forces (the year is 1918), who has discovered that the Germans have a horrible new weapon that could extend World War I beyond an armistice that is on the verge of being signed. They must be stopped.

[…]

The movie disregards the bondage overtones of the Wonder Woman comics, but does maintain a straightforward feminine POV. You might expect director Jenkins — who’s been unable to get any movie made in the 14 years since her first feature, Monster, enabled an Oscar win for Charlize Theron — to be a little bitter in this regard, but she seems entirely cheerful. True, when Steve’s assistant Etta (Lucy Davis), details all the duties she does for her boss, Diana does say, “We call that slavery.” But Jenkins also has Diana melting down at the sight of a baby on a London street, and the contrasts between feminine and masculine principles in this picture are for the most part gently conveyed: Steve is dedicated to snuffing warmongers; Diana is more concerned with war’s victims. When Steve teaches Diana how to slow-dance in a lamplit village square one night, she says, “Is this what people do when there are no wars to fight?”

Although some of its sets are shabbily artificial-looking, and some of its slo-mo action is wearily dated (Zach Snyder was one of the producers), this is nevertheless a movie you root for. It’s richly pulpy but cleanly wrought, and it creates a new comic-book world that’s blessedly free of the grim neuroses that darken so many superhero films. Most notably, its star is a gift to a genre that was long past the point of beginning to feel seriously depleted.

The tedious tropes of modern Young Adult science fiction novels

Filed under: Books, Humour, Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Guest-posting at According to Hoyt, Christopher M. Chupik describes the typical YA novel:

… I never read much YA when I was a young adult. Early on, I vaulted past my contemporaries. Most of the books aimed at kids my age were depressing “problem novels”. I didn’t want to spend time with depressingly realistic kids with depressingly realistic problems. I had school for that. Escape was what I wanted.

Working at a library now, I handle a great deal of the new YA books that come our way. The success of The Hunger Games has unleashed a flood of copycat dystopian fiction. I read the jackets and feel a depressing sameness creeping in:

    “In the dystopian near future, climate change has wrecked everything. The EvilCorp/EvilGov has taken power, crushing freedom and reorganizing society into an unfair class system designed to make teens angsty. Actiongirl Unlikelyname is completely ordinary and totally special. She must join the Resistance and make a choice that will change her world forever: which generically hunky guy will she be with at the end of the trilogy?”

This Twitter feed does a great job of mocking the cliches:

Tweets by DystopianYA

There’s a few YA novels set on other planets, but they almost invariably involve evil corporations or “the one-percenters”, who of course have colonized space on the backs of everybody else. What a great way to get the kids interested in space exploration, than to turn it into tedious left-wing class warfare propaganda, right?

And most of these came out back in the Obama years, when left-wingers, and by extension their fiefdoms in the publishing industry were optimistic about the future. But now that they lost the election one can only imagine the outpouring of over-the-top dystrumpias which is about to flood bookshelves in the months and years to come.

Now, let it be known that I’m not entirely against the dystopian trend. I did grow up reading John Christopher’s Tripod and Prince in Waiting trilogies, after all. I certainly see the value in showing the younger generation that leaders should not be blindly trusted, that “progress” is not a guarantee and that freedom is not something that you inherit, but something that must be constantly renewed, lest it be lost forever. All are important points.

But I’m worried that all our kids are seeing of the future is doom and gloom. There was some of that when I was growing up. The media of the ’80s played up the threat of impending nuclear war for what I’m sure were completely non-partisan reasons. And then there was the steady drumbeat of ozone hole/acid rain agitprop. But I had Star Trek to show me something better. And even though I look at Trek‘s worldview with some skepticism now, I still appreciate that it’s a fundamentally optimistic view of humanity’s future. YA science-fiction readers aren’t getting that. What they’re being told, over and over, is that the future sucks and that science-fiction is the genre about how much its its going to suck.

QotD: Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual

Filed under: Health, Quotations — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Fascinating. This NYT article bears out a suspicion I’ve held for a long time about the plasticity of sexual orientation. The crude one-sentence summary is that, if you go by physiological arousal reactions, male bisexuality doesn’t exist, while female bisexuality is ubiquitous.

I’ve spent most of my social time for the last thirty years around science fiction fans, neopagans, and polyamorists — three overlapping groups of people not exactly noted for either sexual inhibitions or reluctance to explore sexual roles that don’t fit the neat typologies of the mainstream culture. And there are a couple of things it’s hard not to notice about them:

First, a huge majority of the women in these cultures are bisexual. To the point where I just assume any female I meet in these contexts is bi. This reality is only slightly obscured by the fact that many of these women describe themselves and are socially viewed by others as ‘straight’, even as they engage in sexual play with each other during group scenes with every evidence of enjoyment. In fact, in these cultures the operational definition of ‘straight female’ seems to be one who has recreational but not relational/romantic sex with other women.

Second, this pattern is absolutely not mirrored in their male peers. Even in these uninhibited subcultures, homoerotic behavior involving self-described ‘straight’ men is rare and surprising. Such homeoeroticism as does go on is almost all self-describedly gay men fucking other self-describedly gay men; bisexuality in men, while an accepted and un-tabooed orientation, is actually less common than gayness and not considered quite normal by anybody. The contrast with everybody’s matter-of-fact acceptance of female bisexual behavior is extreme.

It is also an observable fact that many women in these cultures change either their sexual orientation or their sexual presentation over time, but that this is seldom true of men. That is, a woman may move from being sexually involved mostly with other women to being mostly involved with men, and back, several times during her adolescent and adult lifetime; nobody considers this surprising and it doesn’t involve much of a change in either self-image or social identity. Not so for men in these cultures; they tend to start out as straight or gay and stay that way, and on the unusual occasions that this changes it tends to involve a significant break in both self-image and social identity.

Eric S. Raymond, “Gayness is hard, lesbianism soft”, Armed and Dangerous, 2005-07-06.

May 30, 2017

The Belisarius fixation in SF&F

Filed under: Books, History, Middle East — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Jo Walton wonders why an otherwise obscure general of an otherwise obscure empire appears so often in fantasy and science fiction:

I once wrote jokingly here that there are only three plots, and they are Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, and Belisarius, because those are the ones everyone keeps on reusing.

There is a conference in Uppsala in Sweden the weekend before the Helsinki Worldcon called “Reception Histories of the Future” which is about the use of Byzantium in science fiction. The moment I heard of it, I immediately started thinking about our obsessive reuse of the story of Belisarius. (I’m going. Lots of other writers are going. If you’re heading to Helsinki, it’s on your way, and you should come too!)

It’s strange that science fiction and fantasy are obsessed with retelling the story of Belisarius, when the mainstream world isn’t particularly interested. Robert Graves wrote a historical novel about him in 1938, Count Belisarius, and there’s Gillian Bradshaw’s The Bearkeeper’s Daughter (1987), but not much else. Whereas in genre, we’ve had the story of Belisarius retold by Guy Gavriel Kay, David Drake (twice) and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and used by L. Sprague de Camp, John M. Ford, Jerry Pournelle, Robert Silverberg, and Isaac Asimov. So what is it about this bit of history that makes everyone from Asimov to Yarbro use it? And how is it that the only place you’re likely to have come across it is SF?

First, let’s briefly review the story. First Rome was a huge unstoppable powerful indivisible empire. Then Rome divided into East and West, with the Eastern capital at Constantinople. Then the Western half fell to barbarians, while the Eastern half limped on for another millennium before falling to the Ottoman conqueror Mehmed II in 1453. We call the eastern half Byzantium, but they went right on calling themselves the Roman Empire, right up to the last minute. But long before that, in the sixth century, at the exact same time as the historical Arthur (if there was an Arthur) was trying to save something from the shreds of Roman civilization in Britain, Justinian (482-565) became emperor in Constantinople and tried to reunite the Roman Empire. He put his uncle on the throne, then followed him. He married an actress, the daughter of an animal trainer, some say a prostitute, called Theodora. He has a loyal general called Belisarius. He built the great church of Hagia Sophia. He withstood a giant city riot in the hippodrome, the great chariot-racing stadium, by having Belisarius’s soldiers massacre a huge number of people. He wrote a law code that remained the standard law code everywhere in Europe until Napoleon. And Belisarius reconquered really quite large chunks of the Roman Empire for him, including Rome itself. At the height of his success he was recalled to Rome and fired because Justinian was jealous. Belisarius had a huge army and could have taken the throne for himself, which was typical of both the Roman and the Byzantine empires, but he was loyal and let Justinian fire him. This is all happening at a time of Christian schism and squabbling about heresy between different sects.

While I’d quibble about her thumbnail sketch a bit, there’s more than enough there to fuel dozens of alt-history, fantasy, or science fiction novels … the fiction couldn’t be much more difficult to swallow than the reality. My first contact with the story of Belisarius was indeed the Robert Graves novel (which I still heartily recommend). I imagine that was true for most of the authors listed above.

May 7, 2017

QotD: The privilege of colourblindness

Filed under: Media, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In Slate magazine, SF author Ursula LeGuin complains that the producers of the new Earthsea miniseries have butchered her work. One form of butchery that she zeroes in on is by casting characters who she intended to be red, brown, or black as white people.

I have mixed feelings. LeGuin has every right to be POed at how her intentions were ignored, but on the other hand my opinion of her has not been improved by learning that she intended the books as yet another wearisomely PC exercise in multiculturalism/multiracialism.

I liked those books when I read them as a teenager. I didn’t notice any character’s skin color. I would really prefer not to have had my experience of those characters retrospectively messed with by LeGuin’s insistence that the race thing is important.

Note: I am not claiming that all casting should be colorblind. I remember once watching an otherwise excellent Kenneth Branagh production of Much Ado About Nothing that was somewhat marred for me by Branagh’s insistence on casting an American black man as a Renaissance Italian lord. This was wrong in exactly the same way that casting a blue-eyed blond as Chaka Zulu or Genghis Khan would be — it’s so anti-historical that it interferes with the suspension of disbelief. Fantasy like LeGuin’s, however, doesn’t have this kind of constraint. Ged and Tenar don’t become either more or less plausible if their skin color changes.

But what really annoyed me was LeGuin’s claim that only whites have the “privilege” of being colorblind. This is wrong and tendentious in several different ways. Colorblindness is not a privilege of anyone, it’s a duty of everyone — to judge people not by the color of their skin but the content of their character, and to make race a non-issue by whatever act of will it takes. (It doesn’t take any effort at all for me.)

Eric S. Raymond, “The Racist of Earthsea”, Armed and Dangerous, 2004-12-16.

April 28, 2017

What is a parallel universe? | Doctor Who Special | James May Q&A | Head Squeeze

Filed under: Science, Space — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 22 Nov 2013

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the very first episode of Doctor Who James has a very special video on what exactly a parallel universe is!

Some physicists believe that in a parallel universe all of our mistakes have been corrected. Rather than taking a take away for one in a cold miserable flat, we are, in a parallel universe, living with our one true love having the best life ever. Outside our own universe, the theory goes, that there are an infinite number of other universes.

However maybe we don’t have to travel beyond our universe to find a parallel. The Schrodinger’s Cat paradox basically is that a cat in a box with a device that can kill at random exists in both alive and dead states. More info on Schrodinger’s Cat here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/google/google-doodle/10237347/Schrodingers-Cat-explained.html

Thanks to Alyssa Ann for her portrait of Jeremy Clarkson: http://alyssamenold.com/

April 21, 2017

How do spacesuits work? | James May Q&A | Head Squeeze

Filed under: History, Space, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 8 Nov 2013

You’ve seen the videos of those astronauts on the International Space Station getting suited and booted in a spacesuit before a spacewalk, but how exactly does the space suit work?

A spacesuit has to protect you from the glaring radiation from the sun as well as keeping you warm from the extreme cold of outer space. As well as that is has to make sure you have enough oxygen and enough movement so you can actually do your job.

It also has to be pressurised to about 4.7PSI. Otherwise the empty vacuum of outer space will make your organs increase to twice their normal size and you will meet a very unpleasant untimely death.

Don’t fancy building your own spacesuit, why not build an elevator into space? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=annVRxRjj4c&feature=c4-overview-vl&list=PLMrtJn-MOYmeNkbYzXsEluioufGDxuqtO

Martin Archer has all the information you need on when humans will be able to go to Mars http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYthxj-bO0I&list=PLMrtJn-MOYme6klSjJXoZfWmNZ6ZthOSA&index=12

April 18, 2017

Examples of the “Paranoid Thriller” genre

Filed under: Books, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In the latest Libertarian Enterprise, J. Neil Schulman discusses a type of book that he characterizes as the Paranoid Thriller:

It’s probably no surprise to anyone who’s read my books, but I’m a long-time fan of what might best be called the Paranoid Thriller.

“Paranoid Thriller” isn’t a book publishing category. You won’t find such a classification in the Library of Congress, or in the shelving system of Barnes and Noble. Amazon.com has the most cross-referenced indexing system of any bookseller I can think of and even it doesn’t seem to have that as a sub-category of fiction.

Technically — because these stories are often set in the “near future” or “the day after tomorrow” or sometimes in an alternate history — the Paranoid Thriller is a sub-genre of science fiction. But usually, beyond the element of political speculation, there are none of the usual tropes of science fiction — extraterrestrials, space, time, or dimensional travel, artificial intelligence, biological engineering, new inventions, scientists as action heroes, virtual realities, and so forth.

I’m sure even this list shows how outdated I am when it comes to what’s being published as science-fiction these days, which within the publishing genre has abandoned all those cardinal literary virtues of clarity, kindness to the reader, and just good storytelling in favor of all those fractal fetishes that previously made much of “mainstream” fiction garbage unworthy of reading: dysfunctional characters, an overwhelming sense of helplessness and despair, and of course hatred of anything ever accomplished to better the entire human race by old dead European-extraction white men.

[…]

The Paranoid Thriller is step-brother to the Dystopian novel, such as Yvgeny Zamyatin’s We, Ayn Rand’s Anthem, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and George Orwell’s Nineteen-eighty-four, and brother to the espionage novel — everything from Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels to John Le Carre and Tom Clancy’s spy novels; and at least kissing cousin to alternate history thrillers like Brad Linaweaver’s 1988 Prometheus Award-winning novel, Moon of Ice, about a Cold War not between the United States and the Soviet Union but between a non-interventionist libertarian United States and a victorious Nazi Germany.

Some examples of the Paranoid Thriller:

In books, let’s start with Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, the story of an American president who rises to power by enforcing a Mussolini-type fascism in America, published three years after the movie Gabriel Over the White House enthusiastically endorsed such a presidency, well into the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who did it for real, and a year after Adolf Hitler became the Führer of Germany.

Three years before Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers was serialized in Colliers, Robert A. Heinlein’s 1951 Doubleday hardcover novel, The Puppet Masters crossed genre between futuristic science-fiction and the Paranoid Thriller — in effect creating an entire new genre of Paranoid Science-Fiction Horror — in which unlike H.G. Wells’ invaders from Mars in The War of the Worlds who had the decency to exterminate you, the alien invaders instead jumped onto your back and controlled your brain making you their zombie.

But then again, Heinlein had already created the Ultimate Paranoid Thrillers in his 1941 short story “They” and 1942 novella “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” — over a-half-century before The Wachowski Brothers’ 1999 movie The Matrix — in which the entire world is a vast conspiracy to convince one man of its reality.

Jumping two decades forward I’ll use as my next example Ayn Rand’s 1957 epic Atlas Shrugged, in which the Soviet- refugee author warned how the United States — by following the path of a kindler, gentler socialism — could end up as the fetid garbage dump that had devolved from her once European-bound Mother Russia.

March 7, 2017

Lois McMaster Bujold’s ongoing series of novellas in “World of the Five Gods”

Filed under: Books — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

I’ve been remiss in mentioning some recent works of Lois McMaster Bujold … partly because they’ve been released in ebook format before eventually making it to print, which means I’m already two books behind the current one, because I wait for the hardcover to become available (I’m really not much of a fan of ebooks, except for “emergency” reading on my phone when I’m caught without a dead-tree book to read).

If you’re not averse to ebooks, the first in the series is called Penric’s Demon:

Part of the blurb from the Amazon.ca description:

On his way to his betrothal, young Lord Penric comes upon a riding accident with an elderly lady on the ground, her maidservant and guardsmen distraught. As he approaches to help, he discovers that the lady is a Temple divine, servant to the five gods of this world. Her avowed god is The Bastard, “master of all disasters out of season”, and with her dying breath she bequeaths her mysterious powers to Penric. From that moment on, Penric’s life is irreversibly changed, and his life is in danger from those who envy or fear him.

Set in the fantasy world of the author’s acclaimed novels The Curse Of Chalion, Paladin Of Souls and The Hallowed Hunt, this novella has the depth of characterization and emotional complexity that distinguishes all Bujold’s work.

A limited edition hardcover was published by Subterranean Press, and I believe either a trade or mass-market paperback will be released at some point in the future (perhaps as an omnibus edition).

The second book in the series (and the one I just finished reading last week) is called Penric and the Shaman:

Amazon’s description:

In this NOVELLA set in The World of the Five Gods and four years after the events in Penric’s Demon, Penric is a divine of the Bastard’s Order as well as a sorcerer and scholar, living in the palace where the Princess-Archdivine holds court. His scholarly work is interrupted when the Archdivine agrees to send Penric, in his role as sorcerer, to accompany a “Locator” of the Father’s Order, assigned to capture Inglis, a runaway shaman charged with the murder of his best friend. However, the situation they discover in the mountains is far more complex than expected. Penric’s roles as sorcerer, strategist, and counselor are all called upon before the end.

The third novella is called Penric’s Mission and I haven’t read it yet, as the limited edition hardcover has not been announced (but I anticipate it will be coming out later this year). The latest in the series is Mira’s Last Dance, which went live online just a few days ago.

March 4, 2017

The miniatures of Gerry Anderson’s UFO

Filed under: Britain, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

One of my favourite shows in the early 1970s was UFO, by the same creator and production team of the classic “supermarionation” shows Fireball XL5, Thunderbirds, and Captain Scarlet. The Prop Gallery has an overview of how the miniatures used in the show were developed and filmed:

UFO is a 1970 science fiction television series created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson and was the final production of Century 21, formally AP Films, who had previously been responsible for other hit shows such as Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. UFO was the Anderson’s first live action series, financed by the Incorporated Television Company (ITC) of media mogul Lew Grade who like what he saw in the Anderson produced film Doppelganger, the series was aimed at a more adult demographic than their earlier marionette based work.

The series follows a secret military organisation known as SHADO, an acronym for Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation, who defend the Earth from alien invasion under the cover of the Harlington-Straker Studios. Starring Ed Bishop as Commander Straker much of the series was filmed the MGM British Studios, later known as Elstree, which doubled as the Straker Studio in a clever money saving move. While the series may have lacked puppets it did feature Anderson’s other trademark, stunning model miniature effects sequences realised by longtime collaborator Derek Meddings who would go on to become an Academy Award winner and one of the most highly regarded and influential effects talents ever to work in the industry.

In early 1969 Century 21 set about realising the requirements for filming from their studios in Slough and work began on developing the various SHADO vehicles. Instrumental in this process were Derek Meddings and prolific designer Mike Trim who created concepts which were to bring yet another Anderson world to life. Miniatures were built in various scales by the talented Century 21 model makers, the old puppet stages used on previous shows were transformed in to fully fledged visual effects stages to handle the construction of larger model sets and filming began in April 1969 under the supervision of Meddings.

February 20, 2017

Terry Pratchett Back in Black

Filed under: Books, Britain, Humour — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

No embedding allowed, so you’ll have to click here.

H/T to Jerrie Adkins for the link.

February 15, 2017

From the Golden Age of SF to the Chalk Age of today

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Here’s an interesting contrarian take on the history of SF: that the “Golden Age” of Campbellian SF was actually the end of the true Golden Age … the era of the pulps:

Here’s the Great Myth of the Golden Age of Science Fiction:

“Science Fiction sucked until the coming of John W. Campbell and the Big Three — Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. Together they swept away the puerile garbage of the Pulps and brought about Science Fiction’s Golden Age.”

This is, not to put too fine a point on it, utter tosh. Bunk. Hokum.

It’s horseshit.

The coming of Campbell and co. did not save or elevate the Fantasy and Science Fiction genre. Before them, it was already popular and widely read. In addition to the Pulps, there were novels, radio serials, and (eventually) cinema serials.

Nor was F&SF at that time a literary ghetto, a genre thought fit only for teenage boys and pencil-necked geeks. Men and women, adults and children — all read the Pulps. Some F&SF magazines were aimed solely at the adult audience.

It took the twin assaults of Campbell and the Socialist-Libertine wing of the Futurians to turn the mainstream off of SF. And, despite periodic attempts to revive SF, it remains a ghetto today.

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