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Archive for the 'New Releases' Category


When I was encouraged to read Ruthanna Emrys’s Winter Tide, which jumpstarts from the “Deep Ones” part of H.P. Lovecraft’s mythology and is intended as the beginning of an “Innsmouth Legacy” series (Tor’s got some previews from the months before the book was released), it was fairly popular in my library systems. While waiting my turn I got myself a better Lovecraft grounding: specifically, The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, which as a hardcover volume feels really impressive. (One of my math friends at Harvard demonstrated his thesis’s, er, gravity by dropping it on the floor for me. You’ve all heard the one about a class’s grades starting from “A to the person whose paper falls farthest down a staircase,” right? This guy seemed actually to be aiming for that—proudly.)

The source for the Winter Tide recommendation asked, upon hearing of my progress, “Do you think Lovecraft as an original author is worth reading?” That’s the sort of question I like to respond to publicly.

Do I feel honor-bound to have my Lovecraft “grounding” before I attempt a spin-off/re-imagining like Winter Tide or Lovecraft Country? Not at all. Do I think it’s likely useful background to enhance my experience not only of those books, but of a host of other cultural experiences up to and including overhearing “de-briefs” of Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror at HRSFen Summer Party? Oh, yeah. Heck, I hadn’t even known until the other month the reference inherent in Batman Begins‘s “Arkham Asylum.” “Lovecraftian horror” is one of those terms thrown around enough that it’s worth having a primary-source experience for it.

Lovecraft’s well-acknowledged real-life racism and other prejudices are, indeed, off-putting to say the least. Some people recoil at his very likeness. To me, though, it can’t be any significant factor in my appreciation for his fiction. Fiction must speak for itself. I feel insulted, and sometimes literally pained, when I feel an author is insulting the audience—and this is partly because it’s a misuse of the medium. Characters with unsavory personal views, in contrast, are often a perfectly valid element in the author’s story-telling. And that’s how the racism in Lovecraft’s actual stories feels to my reading. His stories assume certain bizarre fears and ‘ick’ factors about certain heritages (long-term small-village insulation being even more off-putting to the characters than ethnic background). This assumption from story to story is consistent enough that one isn’t surprised to hear it comes directly from the author. However, the stories propound equally–or more–consistently and markedly the fear that “people around me might be in contact with or even worshiping arcane powers that it’s Better We Know Not Of”—that’s exactly the atmosphere people like in “Lovecraftian horror,” isn’t it?

Besides, it’s truly charming to skim over the annotations in The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. There’s how many biographies and critical works and cross-referencing and maps and genealogies and other secondary literature? It’s just sweet that so many people have cared so much for the worlds he created. It reminds me of Tolkien.

C.S. Lewis might very well have agreed with me that Lovecraft and Tolkien have a legitimate kinship here. In An Experiment in Criticism, one of the greatest literary critics suggests very gently and very persuasively that the value of a book may lie less in how it is written, and more in how it is read. The chapter “On Myth,” though not the center of Lewis’s argument, is my favorite part of the volume, and the part applicable here:

There is … a particular kind of story which has a value in itself—a value independent of its embodiment in any literary work. …

The pleasure of myth depends hardly at all on such usual narrative attractions as suspense or surprise. Even at a first hearing it is felt to be inevitable. And the first hearing is chiefly valuable in introducing to us a permanent object of contemplation….

The degree to which a story is any story is a myth depends very largely on the person who hears or reads it. … Where one finds only danger for the heroes, the other may feel the ‘aweful.’ Where one races ahead in curiosity, the other may pause in wonder. … The myth-loving boy, if he is also literary, will soon discover that [John]  Buchan is by far the better writer; but he will still be aware of reaching through [H. Rider] Haggard something which is quite incommensurate with mere excitement. Reading Buchan, he asks ‘Will the hero escape?’ Reading Haggard, he feels ‘I shall never escape this. This will never escape me. These images have struck roots far below the surface of my mind.’

Over the course of almost a century, H.P. Lovecraft has inspired readers gleefully to dig into, mine out, crack open, polish, display, and send to the stars every little nugget of the strange, fearsome world his characters live and (mostly) die in. A discovery whether some version of that world strikes roots, too, in you is worthwhile irrespective of the quality or morals of the writing.

Oh, and about the writing: yes, I, too, get the impression from At the Mountains of Madness that you could cut out a full third of the text just by culling adjectives synonymous with “eldritch.” But it’s like with Philip K. Dick, or George Lucas: these men have ideas that can light fires in so many imaginations. That’s worth appreciating.

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Fandom & adaptations

So who’s seen Ender’s Game?

Is it any good as a movie?

Unrelated question: which, if any, parts of the feel & experience of the book does it get right?

It’s funny, isn’t it, that those are unrelated questions? And movie reviews can only answer the second question when it’s obvious that the reviewer is a fan. e.g. for The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey (3-part Hobbit: WTF?), go straight to Anthony Lane’s review. It summarizes very neatly to “I loved it — but I’m a fanatic” (which is also, word-for-word, my own review of Terminator: Salvation).

I haven’t seen a fan’s review of Ender’s Game. (No, I haven’t searched at Hatrack River, why do you ask?) I knew I was in the wrong place at Entertainment Weekly upon reading, “The problem is, these initiation and training scenes go on forever.” I’m not a Card fanatic, but I’m pretty confident that anyone who considers Battle Room a problem hasn’t the slightest idea what Ender’s Game fandom is about.

P.S. Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham is, in theory, an unadulterated stroke of genius. Please tell me that, unlike Russell Crowe as Javert, it also works in practice.

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HRSFAlum Academia hits Pop Culture

A shout-out to HRSFAN Aaron J. Dinkin, linguist of the dialectological variety, who appeared as a Major Quoted Someone for Slate last month in an article on the Northern Cities Vowel Shift (NCVS aka NCS).

The article is raising awareness of some recent (~our lifetime) re-jiggering of “linguistic turf” for short vowels (cat, cot, caught, &c.), which seems to be radiating outward from areas like Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit &c. The write-up is fun, and Aaron sounds in his element.

I like the content of the article, but am not sure where the tone is coming from. Aaron, Emily, and anyone else with opinions and/or data, please chime in:

  • Why does the introductory expert, William Labov, explicitly present the NCS as a PROBLEM? It’s kind of cool to be catching systematic pronunciation change in the act — especially if it may truly be as big a vowel shift as we’ve seen (heard) in the past millennium. And it’s not like Northeast/Midwesterners feel like we can’t understand or be understood by others. Is this actually an aesthetic judgment? I think most of us already feel English vowels are dead ugly, and don’t care except (possibly) in an operatic context.
  • Are the experiments described as supporting lack of self-awareness on the part of NCS speakers (Preston, Niedzielski) presented accurately? Neither seem damning to me. How is “flipping a mental coin” for cat v. cot in isolation — if in one’s own pronunciation they are homonyms — different from flipping a mental coin for to v. two v. too in isolation?

New QC shirt

I’m not sure what to think about the new shirt from Questionable Content. On the one hand: Cat! Jet pack! Science! Glow in the dark! On the other hand: What does the phrase “Science is a verb now” actually mean? The blurb for the shirt, to its credit, actually does use “science” as a verb:

Pay no attention to the cat sciencing through space. She was sciencing where she wasn’t supposed to science and it is our hope that in the end her sciencing will help further the cause of science.

I’m all for sciencing to further the cause of science, but without that explanatory text (which, unlike the title of a certain story, does not appear on the shirt itself) I find the phrase pretty puzzling. When I first saw it, I thought it was perhaps refering to the idea that “verbs are actions; nouns are things”, which is a huge oversimplication, and which I therefore do not want to encourage. Speaking of which, here is a shirt I know I love.

But anyway, back to the QC shirt: am I overthinking? Does it really mean what it says? Does it mean something else entirely? Am I overthinking because OMG it’s a glow in the dark cat with a jetpack and SCIENCE!?


Unscientific America and the popular image of science

I was intrigued but ultimately left unsatisfied by this article on Titled “Why America is flunking science”, the article takes on the question of why so many Americans don’t know basic facts about science. But rather than repeating the same tired claims about the uneducated masses, they consider instead the image of science presented by Hollywood and by scientists themselves. They walk through a number of examples (the well-researched but still implausible plot of Angels & Demons, Michael Crichton’s denial of global warming, the supposed link between vaccinations and autism) to demonstrate that the problem isn’t always a lack of education:

Consider vaccination. An army of aggrieved parents nationwide, likely spurred in part by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., swears today that vaccines are the reason their children developed autism, and they seem virtually impossible to convince otherwise. Scientific research has soundly refuted this contention, but every time a new study on the subject comes out, the parents and their supporters have a “scientific” answer that allows them to retain their beliefs. They get their information from the Internet, from other parents of like mind, from a few non-mainstream researchers and doctors who continue to challenge the scientific consensus, and perhaps most of all — as was much the case with Crichton and global warming — from a group of celebrities, most prominently Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, who have made a cause of championing such misinformation and almost assuredly deeply believe in it.

Yet the parents who listen to McCarthy and Carrey — rather than the CDC and the FDA and the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine — tend to be well-to-do and highly educated. Calling them “ignorant” is hardly accurate. After all, they’ve probably done far more independent research on a scientific topic that interests and affects them than most other Americans have. Like Crichton, they may be misusing their intelligence, but it’s not as though they don’t have any to begin with. Perhaps Mark Twain put it best: “The trouble with the world is not that people know too little, but that they know so many things that ain’t so.”

While I’m highly sympathetic to the take-home message that we should be paying more attention to the popular portrayal of science, I found the article incomplete in significant ways. Most importantly, I’m not convinced that the portrayal of science in Hollywood is as big a problem as they make it out to be. The spread of misinformation by celebritites, yes, certainly problematic. But to rail against the archetype of the mad scientist in fiction seems like an overreaction. The relation between this image of science, and the fact that even educated people are confused about science, seems more nuanced than the article presents. When we consider educated people who are being misled about scientific problems, isn’t the problem exactly that they do care about science but don’t know how to recognize reliable information? This is very different from the problem of avoiding science altogether because of unfavorable stereotypes.

While the article discusses some new institutions that are trying to tackle the image problem, it doesn’t give any concrete suggestions about what individual scientists can do to improve the image of science. Fortunately, the authors, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, have just released a book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, dealing with themes like those in this article. I’m very much looking forward to reading it.

If you’re interested in this topic, you might also want to follow Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s blog, The Intersection, where they are currently engaged in a high-profile debate with Pharyngula’s PZ Meyers.


Shadowrun meets…Opera?

I heard about this just last night: Reapo! The Genetic Opera. Amidst a 2067 epidemic of organ failure,  the MegaCorp GeneCo can sell you replacement organs…but if you don’t keep up on your payments, Repo Man will be dispatched to “repossess” them. Meanwhile, the show features Sarah Brightman, Paris Hilton, and no fewer than 61 musical numbers.

According to the wikipedia article, it’s been getting good reviews and has been able to expand its limited tour in the theaters due to higher-than-expected turnout.  But ultimately I’m not arguing that this show is good. I’m merely predicting that a certain subset of HRSFANS may find it irresistable. Apparently there’s a sound-track out already, and the DVD comes out in late January. If you see it, please report back!

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When in doubt, kill your heroes

Probably by now you’ve seen DC’s new gambit to make you care about buying comics: Neil Gaiman is going to write a Batman story called “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” (Eagle-eyed comics fans will spot the reference to the titularly similar Alan Moore comic, which, yes, is intentional.) This story is set to pub as a kind of tribute after “Batman–R.I.P.” comes out. That would be the story in which they’re going to kill Batman.

I don’t know about you, but there’s a little six-year-old inside of me saying: But… but… You can’t kill Batman! Waaaah!

And the sad truth is: that’s exactly what DC is counting on. 

This is, by far, not the first time a major comics company has “killed” a superhero for a publicity stunt. The recent death of Captain America caused an especial uproar. How that translated to sales, I couldn’t say, but the frequency with which DC and Marvel are willing to kill their heroes in order to drive up the consumer awareness of that particular line is a bit shocking to me. I mean: aren’t these supposed to be superheroes? Why should they get killed because some editor says they need the publicity? Surely Batman can take DC’s editorial staff!

Okay, my glamorous daydreams of Batman crashing heroically through a windowpane two blocks from my office aside, it sure seems fishy to me that a hero’s narrative–even those of heroes owned by a corporation, not by a writer–can be altered because of a company’s marketing and publicity concepts. But that’s exactly what DC has done, over and over, and they wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t working. 

But as a fan, it rings hollow to me. DC is the same company that yanked Minx off the shelves less than two years after it launched (with much disagreement about whose fault it was), and is planning to cancel the wonderful gateway comic Blue Beetle, one of the most original superhero reimaginings the line has launched in years. (More comments here.) With so much shuffling going on behind the scenes, further puppetry leaves a bitter taste in my mouth: do these events and cancellations really help sales enough to be worth it? Shouldn’t DC be able to sustain a line without gimmicky “deaths” like this? I don’t know. I do know that these forced narrative shifts make me less interested in these stories, because the results feel less like comics than giant shiny advertisements for a property.

I’m not saying killing, or implying the impending death of, superheroes is bad or uninteresting. In fact, one of the best superhero comics on the market right now is Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman (yes, I spoiled you a tiny bit). But the implied impending doom isn’t forced on the story; on the contrary, Morrison generated the idea himself after DC gave him free rein, because this story won’t be in the canon. And the results are spectacular.

But DC won’t take its own punches. As I said, Morrison’s brilliant story won’t “count”: even if he does kill Superman, you can’t kill Superman. You can’t kill a billions-of-dollars franchise, not even if it’s the best, most satisfying ending to the story. It’s a false death, like the Hero of the aptly named Much Ado About Nothing: she can’t be dead, because then the story isn’t funny. The fans won’t like it.

So DC pulls its stunts, gets all of us six-year-olds scared, and kills Batman. And just you wait: in a few months, Batman will be back on his feet, right as rain. His death will be written out of the canon, or reversed by some miraculous event, or simply put down to being greatly exaggerated. Then he’ll be back in Gotham’s skies, immune to all but the craftiest of villains and fastest of bullets–and, of course, the harsh red pencil of the editor. And I’ll still be left here wondering: if we told the whole story, what really would happen to the caped crusader?

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Mirror’s Edge

I’m not much of a videogamer, but I’m intrigued by what I’ve read about the new video game Mirror’s Edge. The game is a “first person runner” based on parkour, the art of running, jumping, climbing, and otherwise moving quickly through urban environments. Amusingly, the game’s main selling point seems to be that playing it might make you vomit, due to the intensely realistic first-person perspective.

Clive Thompson of attributes the game’s nausea-inducing realism to the fact that it successfully hacks into our proprioception, our sense of the position and movement of our own bodies. It is well established in psychology research that carefully controlled visual and tactile stimuli can subvert our proprioception, even to the point of inducing minor out-of-body experiences. But it’s impressive to see that translated into something we can all do at home with a TV and a video game controller.

(For more information, see Thompson’s review and Tom Stafford’s follow-up on Mind Hacks.)

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