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Movies & innovation – and _Diamond Age_ racting

One of the great parts of being a speculative fiction fan is watching reality catch up to and surpass one’s favorite authors’ imaginations — or just never take a step in that direction at all. As I’ve written before, I live in dread of the genetic-discrimination world of Gattaca, which I now fear may be here before today’s children are dead (though I’m still hoping it won’t be before I am dead).

On the other hand, I’m chomping at the bit for movie acting to become independent of the actors’ own physical attributes, as in The Diamond Age. Avatar was a great leap forward, but so was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, because that was the first time CGI tried to render human faces and skin in a way that might fool the audience, even for half-second intervals. (Remember how amazing that one-second teaser of a single eye blinking was at the time?) Avatar was not ambitious on that particular score: only the non-human characters are rendered.

But some day we’ll see a movie where all the actors are wearing suits like Andy Serkis‘s (LOTR and Planet of the Apes!), and I can barely wait, because then we’ll finally be able to have movie stars whose ability to use their faces matters more than their facial features. (My favorite part about this in The Diamond Age is the little bit about Miranda studying how to ract a character with “cat eyes,” since she in real life has “bunny eyes,” which are used differently.)

This is how my husband convinced me to see Les Misérables. I didn’t expect it to be impressive musically as compared to any stage production, and indeed I was pretty much not impressed on that score. But letting the actors sing on-camera and mixing in the orchestra afterwards is a new attempt. The actors were clearly and justifiably over the moon about the chance. So I went along promising to have an open mind in trying to evaluate whether this presages the future of movie musicals.

And does it? Well, of course, I haven’t a clue. Quite irrespective of impressiveness, Les Miserables is always overwhelming, and thus hard to evaluate. Yes, the sung sequences are obviously more immediate than in Singin’ in the Rain. But movies, movie stars, moviemaking, and movie audiences — to say nothing of acting styles — are so different now from then that it seems arbitrary to compare how the songs were recorded between the two.

What new innovations are you watching for (happily or no)?

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My errors

I owe Elisabeth a massive apology for some poorly considered writing of mine last winter.

I’m really sorry: it was thoughtless of me not to ask you directly first.

A standard apology probably would have sufficed had I given it when it came due, but that was seven months ago. And culpability, like Rumour, grows swiftly and fearfully. In other cases when someone else here has written something that baffles or otherwise inspires me, I have been more courteous about prior notification of what I’m thinking, so I really have no excuse for neglecting that step in February.

So, just a few more lines to throw out on the question of ‘pleasure’ and/or ‘work’ reading:

  • A new short essay on Aristotelian leisure
  • Franz of Sunday in the Park with George

    Work is what you do for others — Liebchen —
    Art is what you do for yourself

  • A family member overheard someone in an airport security line complaining that he was 100s of pages into a book and nothing had happened. He turned around to see what book the other passenger was reading, and it was American Gods. My family member nearly blurted out, “What do you mean?”
  • This same relative was chewed out by a friend to whom he had recommended Ilium for sending him through an 800-page “slog.” To me (and my relative), reading Ilium is much more like being poor Phaeton in Apollo’s chariot. Slog? How? I’m being dragged too fast for my feet to stick in anything!
  • But one of my blockmates says he would characterize both American Gods and Ilium very similarly, simply because he would define “something happening” in a novel as “a scene advancing the main plot.”
  • Huh. I never would have thought of that.

So in conclusion, I do grasp that, very often, someone else’s reading tastes utterly confuse me because I’m just not imaginative enough. And I should remind myself more often to ask before I expound, even if I can’t ask before I wonder.

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Why to read, when not to read

The other month, a to-be-commended HRSFalum asked through HRSFANS-discuss for good books to bring on a long vacation, imposing only constraints that they be in-print (reasonably available) mass-market PBs. As one might expect, this generated an excellent recommendations list (which someone really ought to collate for the HRSFANS wiki—shoot, I volunteered again, didn’t I?), if rather heavy on SF/F and historical fiction with SF/F elements. But there’s nice range to the discussions, as well; and a bit of back-and-forth amongst the recommenders.

One day into the discussion, Tony cautioned:

His Majesty’s Dragon, like Name of the Wind, Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and Vlad Taltos are all unfinished series, and I’d really recommend reading the GREAT books on this list that are DONE before reading ones we don’t know how they turn out.

This seems to involve a bit of legerdemain in categorization, comparing “unfinished series” to “books … that are DONE.” A series pretty much by definition comprises several books completed in their own right (or at least to the extent that individual publishing is deemed warranted). His Majesty’s Dragon is done, as are five successor novels: the author is not yet done with all stories she intends to set in the Temeraire universe, but why should her artistic and/or business decision in our reality handicap the readability of books already available?

Even if the intent is to recommend complete series (such as The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) over ongoing ones (from the barely-begun City of a Hundred Rows through the apparently-still-kicking Song of Ice and Fire all the way to, I suppose, Wheel of Time?), why should the expected number of additional related books be a more compelling reason against or for reading volume 1 (or 5) than the qualities of the specific volume in question?

And how does this square with Tony’s own list of recommendations, emailed to the thread the previous day, including “Hyperion by Dan Simmons (only read the first book!)”? Once a reader knows how a set of related books “turns out,” s/he can choose only the “GREAT” one, but that same reader should hold off reading a GREAT book that might yet have good, bad and/or indifferent successors?

Please allow me only barely to mention the undead series, completed by their creators for good or bad and re-animated in subsequent decades (Dune being probably the most extreme example—in this aspect as in others—but with the Foundation books an arguably even weirder case, since they were re-animated first by Asimov himself and then again by his estate!).

I say, read any given book on its own terms. As I’ve written before, if it is a GREAT book there will obviously be further stories to tell, but that does not mean you need feel any duty to seek out any more of those stories, or to believe any related stories just because the same person (or an anointed successor) wrote them.

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Tolkien academia for a popular audience

This Washington Post article discusses the story of a Tolkien scholar whose strategy of producing podcasts about Tolkien’s novels for public consumption seems to have won him some success in academia, not to mention a large online following.

The hub of his online activities is a website called The Tolkien Professor, which includes the aforementioned podcast lectures, links to both primary sources and criticism, and information about skype-in office hours.

Aside from the content of his work, Corey Olsen’s career trajectory strikes me as interesting in several respects. It reflects a more-or-less successful bid to make a career of studying genre literature in the academy. It reflects what I view as a commendable effort to reach out of the academy and engage a popular audience with academic research–I would love to see this happen more often, and to be rewarded rather than (at best) tolerated. Finally, of course, it raises the question of college classes being made available free and online–a trend which is extremely exciting, but which is not uncomplicated by questions about the future of academic institutions in a world where higher education costs are skyrocketing. Are universities going to go the way of the newspaper? How should we feel about that if they do?

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Calling all female mad scientists

A friend recently asked on her blog what fictional characters we (her readers) relate to. Two that immediately came to mind for me were Helen Narbonic (from Narbonic) and Agatha Clay (from Girl Genius). Both are female mad scientists from webcomics, which got me wondering what other female mad scientists I might be missing out on. A quick glance at Wikipedia’s List of mad scientists confirms how male-dominated this field is. Though I admittedly only skimmed it, I didn’t see any female mad scientists on the list whose names I recognized other than the above two. Nor have I been able to come up with others off the top of my head (though maybe that’s just due to poor memory/lack of imagination). So, readers, help me out. What other female mad scientists are out there?

(By the way, if you haven’t read them, I highly recommend both Narbonic and Girl Genius. Narbonic is rather slow getting started, but the story and the art both improve tremendously.)

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Who’s the Medium now? Part III

In the past few months I have been hoping to cultivate a personal-intellectual project regarding the many ways readers think about the stories, characters and authors they encounter. This is proceeding more slowly than I might have liked, but mostly for good reasons—there are so many other wonderfully interesting things to explore in parallel! (Two weeks into my freshman year at Harvard, a young man from my entryway declared forcefully at dinner, “It has always been too long since one has read The Little Prince. One should be reading it constantly, non-stop, day in, day out. Unfortunately, there are other books that require one’s attention.” Two days later I fell deeply in unrequited love with him.)

But at the very least I can return periodically to the questions raised for me so fortuitously by a good visit, so, here, allow me to follow up on a question I mentioned my post “Who’s the Medium now?.”

When a friend stated she cannot enjoy art from creators with whose views she disagrees, I asked first, “Does this also apply to non-fiction?” She said, “I don’t read non-fiction.” As she is in a graduate program in a humanities discipline, my response was a look of some bafflement.

She clarified that she essentially does not read any books in a ‘non-academic non-fiction’ type genre, and that there are some books “I have to read to do my work.” Although she has since clarified that these academic books are enjoyable, her initial phrasing gave me the impression that she read them only because she has to.

I do not know, though I would welcome more insight from her, what formed her preference (aversion? categoric disinterest?), or whether she considers it something good, bad, or indifferent about herself. Perhaps she merely has so much good fiction to read she has decided not to distract herself with some of the enticing offerings of “actual” present and past. (I occasionally wonder how I will ever get to any new books, since there are so many wonderful books to re-read: not just The Little Prince, of course, but also How to Eat Fried Worms, Watership Down, and the Fionavar Tapestry—although I more recently realized I can’t handle that world again.) Or perhaps her identification of an author’s ground axe(s) with the art makes her especially suspicious of authors working in actual facts. Or perhaps it simply hasn’t interested her so far.

But I doubt that good non-fiction cannot interest her. This world is, after all, a wondrous place, full of far more variety and subtlety than we can grasp. Good fictional worlds share the same qualities, to my interpretation: but it takes less skill in an author to go beyond the reader’s imagination when facts are involved.

Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. (NOT SO in the case of Macbeth: the historical Lady Macbeth’s given name was Gruoch, but I understand there is no documentation beyond that of her being particularly intimidating or formidable.) But it is very often more interesting. The much-married Henry VIII of England and his extensive, fractured family provide a favorite example of mine. (My main source is Alison Weir’s joint biography The Six Wives of Henry VIII; among the prosaic fictional treatments I have briefly encountered are The Tudors, The Other Boleyn Girl, and The Autobiography of Henry VIII.)

When King Henry married Anne Boleyn, she was very likely in her early-mid thirties, pushing the safe limits for childbearing years in her time (and even in our time, pushing the easy limits for conception). So although Henry was fixated on securing his succession with a legitimate male heir, that was not a strong argument for marrying this woman.

Furthermore, the extrication process from his marriage to his first wife (his brother‘s widow), Katherine of Aragon, had dragged on for seven years, due in no small part to Queen Katherine’s own exemplary political and personal connections and her popularity with the British people. Henry could not expect to gain in domestic or foreign clout by repudiating the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella.

Finally, during all but the last few months of the political and religious wrangling leading up to Henry’s “divorce,” he and Anne most likely were not sleeping together.

Which pretty much leaves Anne Boleyn’s own personal magnetism as the one most likely proximate cause for Henry’s insistence on marrying her. And I have to say I have a heck of a lot of respect for a woman who had an intensity of magnetism that maintained such a hold for so long over the imagination of a man who had very little rational expectation that she could bring to his complex life any relief (beyond, presumably, in bed), and every reason to wish he might be able to forget her.

Nancy Kress’s short story “And Wild for to Hold” is the only fiction I’ve seen on Anne that can so much as hold a candle to the compellingness of her history. (If only Siân Phillips had ever had a chance to play her!) Unfortunately, Kress’s treatment does not depict Henry or any of the other wives, each of whose own stories was fascinating and tragic in a uniquely real-life way.

I told my friend about Henry-and-wives the day she said she doesn’t read non-fiction. She was fascinated.

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Who’s the medium now? Part II

Nur

Nur - Enemy of darkness and illuminator of consciousness

Xyn

Xyn - Bringer of sleep, keeper of secrets and guardian of Mysteries

Earlier this fall I encountered an pair of goddesses to enthrall me, part of a larger pantheon on display in a coffee shop. More recently I found contact information for the artist, Jonah Kamphorst, and asked for their stories; he has been kind enough to send some preliminary pointers prepared for an earlier show.

I had earlier on the evening I wrote to Jonah re-read my other recent post on fiction, reality, and communication by/through artists. This pretty clearly influenced the particular questions I posed of this artist:

Are they from a world of yours? If so, to what degree are they yet fleshed out in your consciousness?  If not, where else can I look for more?

Jonah’s response is that he created the goddesses (note the direction of the agency) for himself, but has hoped others might find them illustrative or more. Also that he has an “extensive narrative … which is nowhere near complete” regarding them.

I haven’t checked yet, but my first guess is that Jonah has less than extensive experience writing narrative fiction so far. Again, as I noted last month, many writers seem to find themselves less than entirely in control of their narrative worlds. Also, I would describe none of my favorite fictional worlds as “complete”—or at least not as “completely described.” Wholeness in a world, whether this in which we live or those into which we follow storytellers’ great tales, is to my senses crucially dependent on there being always more to discover. One should always sense that one does not yet know everything that’s going on. Even, I expect, as a world’s creator.

Certainly that’s how I maintain my self-respect as a proper Dune fanatic: by insisting that it is not a universe belonging to and best understood by Frank Herbert. Herbert was merely the first to show it to us.

Likewise, I quite without remorse discarded Farscape barely into Season 3 and Six Feet Under part-way through Season 2, feeling the writers had lost track of their characters. And, despite my continued absorption in and deep respect for the character creation from Martha Cooley in The Archivist, I feel she mistakes her plot at the end.

Nur and Xyn here, from Jonah Kamphorst’s pantheon, remind me visually somewhat of “The two sisters,” from Margaret Mahy‘s The Door in the Air, and Other Stories, although these two are not actually complements as Jennifer and Jessica are. The obvious visual influences of Indian, Celtic, and cyberpunk cultures are quite striking and super-fun in combination. The image of Xyn linked here, though, does not quite feel the same as when I first saw it; it may be a different image, or possibly I feel different enough looking at it through the computer screen. In either case, I don’t have quite as forceful a feeling today as I did earlier this fall that there is more to discover—but it’s forceful enough.

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Space Ace, um, of Cakes

This has to be seen to be believed.

At first look, the opening picture just looks like a stack of toys.  But when you realize that it’s all edible, mostly made of fondant — and not just impressive fondant statues of Marvin the Martian, Audrey II, and the Alien queen (piping gel drool!), not just Han Solo frozen in carbonite, ALF, Tom Servo complete with translucent Life-Saver head, a Dalek victim, and more, but also a cake pan underside made into HAL’s brain room, a fondant Tardis, and an inside joke only a SF geek could love — that’s in addition to the Obvious Exploitable Weakness — then you start to realize it’s pretty amazing.  Oh, also, she made a brick wall out of 1,500 fondant bricks mortared with royal icing, and two tiled movie-theater carpets out of caned fondant.

Look, really you just need to click on the first link and look at the whole thing piece by piece, to appreciate its utter majesty.

The awesomeness of the creator, Kimberly Chapman, is not to be underestimated.  Her other works of cake and sugar art include a Periodic Table of Cookies, a Fraggle Rock cake, a Shelob cake and an Orc head cake.

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Vericon this weekend

Vericon is this weekend!

Vericon is a science-fiction, fantasy, gaming, and anime convention featuring many events and distinguished guest speakers. It has been held annually at Harvard University since 2001. The tenth Vericon will take place on Friday-Sunday, March 19-21, 2010. The convention is sponsored by the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association (HRSFA), an undergraduate student group.

This year’s Guest of Honor is Timothy Zahn. It’s guaranteed to be a great Con, so if you’re in the Boston area–or can get there in the next 24 hours–I highly recommend you check it out!

In addition to all of the wonderful Vericon events, we have two HRSFANS events planned for the weekend: Saturday night Non-Cons, and Sunday lunch. See the hrsfans-announce email list for more information.

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Let’s talk about great Sci Fi – the Alternate History

Casting my memory back lo these many years (those of you who know my actual age may snicker) I think I can trace my own fascination with alternate history to an epigraph for a chapter in an Arthur C. Clarke novel, The Fountains of Paradise.

Almost all the Alternative History computer simulations suggested that the Battle of Tours (A.D. 732) was one of the crucial disasters of mankind. Had Charles Martel been defeated, Islam might have resolved the internal differences that were tearing it apart and gone on to conquer Europe. Thus centuries of Christian barbarism might have been avoided, the Industrial Revolution would have started almost a thousand years earlier, and by now we would have reached the nearer stars instead of merely the farther planets….

I do not remember when I read the novel, but it must have been right around early high school. I remember little of it beyond the outline of the main plot, the monks and the butterflies, and that little paragraph about alternate history: what if, in effect, the Dark Ages had been averted?

Of course even phrasing the question that way is a vast oversimplification of the long course of a whole host of cultures—I now know somewhat more about those subtleties—but the question as such captivated me. We live in such accelerated times that the seeming changelessness of prior centuries boggles our minds (though, again, that apparent changelessness no doubt oversimplifies). What if Earth had had an 800-year head start on the Industrial Revolution?  Good heavens, where could we be now?  (I suppose that’s answering my own question….)

This past season I have been reading The Best Alternate History Stories of the Twentieth Century, edited by Harry Turtledove. But alternate history is fascinating in more than just fiction. A friend once told me that the “many-worlds” hypothesis comes to mind for him whenever he does something particularly stupid and escapes death, which happens occasionally (if not too alarmingly so) as a pedestrian in a city such as Boston. On such occasions he considers briefly and pities any number of now-dead “alternate selves.” I have always assumed that nearly all people rehash key conversations in their minds; though in my own case I try to focus on remembering the events as they happened, one also is tempted to consider how they might have gone better.

WARNING: Star Wars spoiler ahead.  Then again, I expect that many of us were spoiled for Star Wars before we were born.

And then … my own personal alternate Star Wars history (and I am not going to look up any sources for this, deliberately!): I have heard that Darth Vader’s declaration of paternity at the end of The Empire Strikes Back was so very secret a revelation that the crew’s scripts were written falsely, such that during the filming of the scene, the actor said something entirely different, while Jones dubbed the real line in later (of course, since it wasn’t Jones in the Vader suit, the last part is almost certainly true). My own reconstruction has it that, to downplay the deception, the actor must have said something that kind-of-almost would have made sense.  And the only other even halfway-consistent alternate history would have been, I feel, for Obi-wan himself to have been Luke’s father. And what would that have meant?

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