Friday, December 02, 2011

Top 10 Moustaches of SF - A Salute to Movember

Things got a little hairy around the world last month, as men grew moustaches for Movember. The month-long event every November sees thousands of men and their supporters involved in a superheroic effort to create awareness about men's health, specifically prostate cancer, and raise funds to fight the disease.

While I didn't take part directly because I already have a moustache and beard and have no desire to shear and regrow them, I did make sure to donate to the fundraising efforts of friends who were cultivating their facial hair for this great cause. If you don't know anyone who's fundraising, I highly recommend going to your national Movember site and making a donation on your own.

While things officially came to a close Wednesday night - and many moustaches were trimmed off shortly thereafter - I did have at least one friend who was still fundraising yesterday, so I decided to hold-off on this wrap-up salute to Movember until today.

Which leads me to the first list I've done in a while (don't ask me why; sheer laziness, I suspect): The Top 10 Moustaches of SF.

Now, I think I should be clear here about the characters who made the cut in this facial hair forum: only those sporting moustaches. Just moustaches. No beards, goatees, love brushes or any other chin-and-jaw accompaniment.

So without further ado, I present to you:

The Top 10 Moustaches of SF:

10) Tik-Tok - the Oz books by L. Frank Baum
This clockwork man makes the list not only for being one of, if not the first robots in English literature, but for being one that came with a moustache. In your face (plate), R2D2!

9) Father Squid - the Wildcards books edited by George R.R. Martin
The gentle spiritual leader of Jokertown in the Wildcards books, Father Squid never really plays more than a supporting role, and so can't rate higher on this list. He does qualify though, because the result of his joker draw from the Wildcard virus' deck is an unforgettable take on facial hair - a moustache of writhing tentacles.

8) Wash - Firefly "Out of Gas"
Ah, Wash. Great pilot, toy dinosaur aficionado, man with unparalleled taste in shirts. And, at one point, as we see in a flashback in the episode revealing how Serenity's crew came together, a dude who was proudly rockin' a 'stache. Not the best-looking upper-lip caterpillar in the 'Verse, but a good try none-the-less. I sometimes wonder if Wash would have survived the Reaver attack after his stunning landing at Mr. Universe's hideout if he'd still had his moustache. Probably. But, because he didn't, and he died, he doesn't warrant a higher position on this list.

7) Ranger Korman - The Clockwork Century series by Cherie Priest
What can you say? Any hombre who's tough enough to track the mystery of the cause of zombie outbreaks all across the Old West and still take pride in sporting a mighty big moustache is a man worthy of respect. 'Nuff said.

6) Harry Mudd - Star Trek
Memorable not only for being the only non-regular character to appear in more than one episode of the original series (3, if memory serves), but for his well-oiled handlebar moustache, Harry Mudd is one of those characters who's so slimy you just love to hate him. Harry's proof that you should never take your eye off of a conman like him, not only so you can avoid his schemes, but also so you can get grooming tips for your own facial hair.

5) Porco Rosso - Porco Rosso
He may be cursed to look like a pig, but that doesn't stop Marco "Porco Rosso" Pagot from being an ace fighter pilot, badass bare-knuckle brawler, dapper dresser, and the cultivator of a neat little moustache that would be the envy of any silver screen swashbuckling actor of yesteryear. The only downside: if you managed to beat him in a fight and make bacon out of him, you'd be spitting little hairs out of your mouth through the entire meal.

4) Captain Chaos - The Cannonball Run
Is he simply the alternate personality of a delusioned mild-mannered, overweight mechanic, or is he some sort of entity locked in a cape and cowl that takes benevolent possession of its wearer to fight for good? Either way, Captain Chaos is a superhero meant to inspire the people (even if he only tends to annoy most of them). Always jolly and boundlessly optimistic, his girth doesn't prevent him from displaying significant strength, superhuman durability and endurance, and an unnatural ability to coach speeds out of engines beyond what they should be capable of doing. And, best of all, Captain Chaos proudly displays a moustache, like a flag of justice across his lower lip. Go, Chaos!

3) Captain Henry Gloval - Robotech/Macross
A veteran of a world-war, Henry Gloval is thrust to the front lines once again as he's placed in command of a massive alien spacecraft that's crashed on Earth and been salvaged and rebuilt. Gloval then becomes shepherd to not only his crew, but a displaced city full of people as he tries to get the ship home in a running battle across the solar system, pursued by the fleets of the Zentraedi. Gloval manages to strike an alliance with some of the warlike aliens, then battle through to victory against overwhelming enemy forces. His last act: to save his second-in-command by thrusting her into an escape pod as their ship comes crashing down around them. Is there any doubt this hero of Space War I could have done all of this without the aid of his moustache?

2) Admiral William Adama - Battlestar Galactica
Admittedly, old Bill Adama only grows his moustache when he's in a down-and-out phase, or during periods where he's waiting between times of greatness. But I think there's a reason for that: growing his moustache allows the Colonial warrior to recharge his vital energies. Shaving it is the trigger that sets him in motion, and once he gets moving, there's no Cylon who's ass he can't kick. The Adamastache is frakking awesome. So say we all!

1) Lando Calrissian - the Star Wars movies
Long ago, he was the suavest under-the-radar-city administrator and freighter pilot in a galaxy far, far away. And he joined the Rebellion and blew up the Death Star 2. Blew. Up. A. Death Star. While wearing a moustache. It just doesn't get any cooler than that.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Remembering A Dragon Queen - RIP Anne McCaffrey

The SF world has lost one of its giants - or, rather, a Dragon Queen. News has come that author Anne McCaffrey has died after suffering a stroke.

McCaffrey, who was a Hugo and Nebula award winner (the first woman to take both prizes) and was named a science fiction grand master in 2005, was a prolific author. Probably the most famous of her works were her Dragonriders of Pern books.

I remember picking up Dragonflight as a teen and just loving it. After all, for a science fiction and fantasy geek, it's got pretty much everything: huge, fire-breathing dragons, an alien world with a lost human colony that's reverted (more or less) to a medieval culture, a menace from space, teleportation, time travel, and a story that jogged along at a good pace while letting you get to know the characters.

But the series is also fixed in my mind as an example of how, over time, a once-beloved story can turn into something I don't really want to make time for anymore. Maybe it was because I O-D'd on McCaffrey stuff. After racing through the original trilogy, I went out and bought every Pern book I could get my hands on and wolfed them down. Too much of a good thing, and certainly too much of a series that was inconsistently written.

But there's something else at work here. As the years went by and I matured, I started thinking about what I'd read in different ways, and I became more dissatisfied with what I was seeing in the Pern novels. It started to dawn on me that the relationship between the dragonriders and their mounts - a telepathic bond that makes them closer than they ever could be to another person, was kind of childish. It was like a young girl's - or younger teenaged girl's - fantasy of being able to talk with her dog or horse and running off and having adventures together, except substitute a 40-foot dragon for the dog or horse. Yeah, yeah, I know it's supposed to be an example of a new type of relationship that's unique to the situation created by a telepathic bond between two entities that care for each other and are basically around each other all the time, working and living together, one that's perhaps symbiotic. And yet there's something unsettling about a relationship between a human and a non-human taking precedence over the bond between two humans who are mated and apparently love each other. Beyond unsettling, it is somewhat immature, like a little girl saying "Boys are okay sometimes, but the most important person in the world to me is my pony!" That sense was always there, kind of lurking in the background, in Dragonflight and its two sequels, but it was later prequel, Moretta's Ride, that really made the point crystal clear for me. At the end, Moretta's dragon goes winging off with some other rider and they get themselves killed. Moretta and the other rider's dragon, in a fit of grief, ignore whatever loved ones and responsibilities are still around them and take flight and teleport into nothingness/death. Really? Not quite an adult approach to life. In the 20 or so years since I came to that realization about the worldview of the dragonriders, I've probably re-read the books twice. Both times were equally unsatisfying. I'm not saying I'll never read them again (the trilogy still has a place of honour on my bookshelf), but the symbolism has certainly soured me on the story.

But back to the author...

I remember seeing McCaffrey at ConAdian, the 52nd World Science Fiction Convention, in Winnipeg, back in '94. Didn't get a chance to speak with her, but I came away with a mixed impression of her from some of the con events she was at. On the one hand, I was disappointed after seeing her on a panel discussing psychic powers. Granted, I was disappointed with the session from start to finish - I'd gone in thinking it would be a discussion about the use of paranormal abilities in stories and some of the best and worst examples of such. Nope. What followed was about an hour of panelists - including McCaffrey - and members of the audience merrily babbling about their own psychic abilities and experiences in a ridiculous wannabe cheese-fest. On the other hand though, I remember her being thoroughly charming and funny when she was presenting at the con's Hugo Awards ceremony. Standing there holding that year's version of the award, the usual metal rocket mounted this time on a large, laser-carved wooden maple leaf on top of some kind of base, McCaffrey had all of us in the audience in stitches as she reminisced about many years before when she'd won her first Hugo and felt somewhat odd as a woman standing in front of a crowd holding a statue that was basically a phallic symbol. She went on to say she approved of the '94 version of the award because it had provided a large leaf for modesty.

I may be of two minds about some of her writing, but my hat is off to Anne McCaffrey for a long and inventive career and for being a trail-blazer for women in SF.

Anne McCaffrey was 85.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Turning My Back on the Past - Well, TV Shows Set in the Ancient Past, Anyway

As the fall TV season continues to lurch into gear in fits and starts (Seriously, pilots and premiers firing at occasional intervals over 2 months? Really?), I've decided to waste no time this year in cutting the fat. Normally I'd give new shows the better part of a season before putting them on probation or cutting them off outright, but this year's different. This year I'm terminating the boring and the unintentionally stupid from my viewing schedule with extreme prejudice. And that means starting by making a couple of shows rooted in the past into nothing but soon-to-be-forgotten memories.

First on the chopping block is Camelot. I'd heard some good buzz about this show before it started airing on the CBC and was cautiously optimistic. Sadly, like the dream of Camelot itself, that optimism came crashing down in ruins. The show is boring.

That's not to say that I expected a non-stop carnival of gory, dark ages battle scenes, but the plot is pretty glacial. Sure, there are occasional fights, but they're quick and half-hearted. The sex scenes seem forced, as though the writers and producers are trying to prove something ("See: we've got an Arthurian show for adults! We can show people having sex! Ha-ha! Look at how gritty and raw our show is!") Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to sex scenes, not remotely, but it almost feels like the producers of Camelot are putting them in just to show that they can try to keep up with series on HBO, when really, that shouldn't be the point. What passes for court intrigue is flat. And the show is humourless - these people are unredeemably dull. I don't care how bad things were in the dark ages, people must have had a laugh over something every now and again. But not on Camelot.

Then there are the characters who bug me, chief among them: Arthur, wannabe king of the Britons. Not only is he written as whining and unbelievably feeble, actor Jamie Campbell Bower seems to think the best way to play the young king is to shuffle around bug-eyed and slack-jawed all the time. Seriously, how many scenes are there where this guy doesn't look as though he's quietly saying to himself: "Whoa! I have no idea what's going on. I'm totally in over my head, man!" His affair with Guinevere feels more like a couple of highschoolers cheating on their respective squeezes and paying half-hearted lip service to the notion that maybe this was something they were told they shouldn't be doing, rather than a more mature portrayal of two people struggling with real, deep emotions and conflicting loyalties that could have severe consequences. Eva Green is a disappointment as Morgan as well. I enjoyed her in Kingdom of Heaven, but in Camelot she seems convinced that simply squinting a lot and pouting her lips will convey a sense of dangerous ambition and the simmering potential for violence. Again, she seems more like a spoiled teen having a tantrum than a serious rival for power. And Claire Forlani as Igraine is just bony and weird and unbelievable in the role of a woman who kings and dukes would tear apart a country over - never mind the fact that anytime I see her I immediately flash back to her looking pipecleaner-emaciated doing the Julie Dwyer-has-drowned scene from Mallrats. Of all the cast and characters, Joseph Fiennes playing a somewhat unnerving Merlin of great but restrained power who's making the myth up as he goes along is watchable. But one good character can't carry the dead weight of this show, and besides, he reminds me too much of Christopher Lambert. I'm always half-expecting him to mumble in a ridiculous French-attempt-at-a-Scottish accent: "There can be only one!"

If you feel the need to watch a show about King Arthur's court, better to turn your attentions to Merlin, which, though deliberately targeted at a younger audience and not remotely concerned with historical accuracy, has characters (likable and revilable) who are worth watching and an overall plot that doesn't take itself too seriously.

Next to be cut is Terra Nova. I was more cautious going in with this one, recognizing right away from the early buzz that it was basically rehashing his old Earth 2 series with a Jurassic Park makeover and more than a little influence from JJ Abrams' Lost. I remember watching Earth 2 as a curiosity but having no real loyalty to it (Although Clancy Brown - oooh! a second Highlander reference! - did a capable job in a non-badguy role). The first Jurassic Park was fun and cool to look at but should have been left as a one-off. And regardless of all the hype that Lost got and all the attempts of friends to convert me into a fan, I just didn't give a shit. Combining the three together does not result in the formula to make me a fan. The premise of sending colonists millions of years back in time to the final age of the dinosaurs is just dumb. I don't know enough about the environmental conditions to say whether humans would actually be able to survive there (comparative atmosphere composition, anyone?), but as a science panel at the recent VCon mentioned, there certainly might be big problems with disease: either in the form of extinct diseases that modern humans would have had no contact with and thus possibly no resistance to, or human-born illnesses wreaking havoc on ancient flora and fauna a-la Homer Simpson's time toaster. Let's not even get into why it doesn't make any sense to send people to colonize and reproduce in a time where a big-ass asteroid is going to come hurtling out of space and cause some serious real estate issues for either the colonists, their kids, or their grandkids, or... well, you get it, sooner or later the whole damn enterprise will prove to be a wasted investment. Sure there are plenty of science fiction shows with settings of questionable livability, but this one is so dumb it's distracting.

Then there are the characters: Hollywood cookie-cutter stock one and all and, as such, pretty uninteresting. Because it's hard to care about the characters, their little factions and intrigues and secrets and mysteries are equally forced and boring.

The only positive note to the show, aside from the special effects, which don't garner too many kudos because, hey, it's a big-budget Spielberg event and so we expect quality monsters and sets, was the line of dialogue from the pilot paying tribute to James Cameron's Aliens:
Girl: "They mostly hunt at night."
Boy: "Mostly."

Not enough to save this turkey. Bring in the asteroid/comet/cosmic spitball early, bring this thing to an end and free-up the air for something more entertaining.

Meanwhile, there's still plenty to watch that's worthwhile in genre TV. The Big Bang Theory is jogging along nicely, Chuck and Todd & the Book of Pure Evil have started again, Canada's finally seeing the 2010 season of Futurama, Southpark is up to its usual profane hilarity, and Grimm (I say this very cautiously) looks like it might have some potential. And even if these start to wear thin, that's okay, the overflowing inbox on my bookshelf is always calling.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Big Trouble In Little China for All Seasons

It's a truly good day indeed when I have the chance to whip out some dialogue from Big Trouble In Little China. And that day was yesterday.

My wife and I were attending a friend's wedding (yes, the Cylon banner wedding mentioned a couple of posts ago) in Little China, er, here in Richmond. Among all of the giveaway items and nick-nacks and plates and centrepieces, etc scattered around our table at the reception were Jenga blocks. The newlyweds had left Jenga blocks for all of the guests, not to keep as souvenirs, but rather for the guests to write words of wisdom on and leave for the happy couple to read during Jenga games in the future.

Let's not even get into how many Jenga sets they'll probably have, given the number of blocks they needed for all the guests, or the rather tricky metaphors that might present themselves when the concept of a marriage is tied up with a block game that's designed to have only one winner and to fall apart more often than not.

I don't remember exactly what my wife wrote on her block... something on each side, I think, with advice for him to make her happy and advice for her not to make a doormat out of him.

But sitting there thinking about what words of wisdom I might have for the couple that were short enough to be scribbled onto a block, it didn't take long before I decided to draw from the ultimate well of inspiration. My choice:

"You were not put on this Earth to 'get it'." (paraphrasing Lo-Pan's line: "You were not brought upon this Earth to 'get it', Mr Burton." to fit into the limited space)

Words to live by in any situation, but applicable in the context of marriage in that, as all of you who are also married know, sometimes the motivations of one's spouse can be clear as mud, but you just have to go with it, 'cause that's the way it is. Also vaguely appropriate because Lo Pan uttered them himself on the day he intended to be married.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go and eat a left-over wedding bun.

Vancouver Sun Photos from VCon 36

The Vancouver Sun's website has a short article, some photos and a short video clip from this past weekend's VCon 36. Nice to see the con got some media attention, though, speaking as a communications professional, it would have been better if they'd been able to put out a stronger hook that would have attracted the local TV stations, or if they'd pitched the right angle to garner some coverage ahead of time, which would probably have increased attendance.

Incidentally, I sat near the girl in the manga cat outfit in one session the other day, and she looks that good in person and has clearly put a lot of hard work into making a costume that's fairly close to the original. That being said, my friend Nicole Yamanaka, a cosplay veteran, made a version of the same costume that was a lot more detailed and accurate, though fairly revealing and probably not something that would be comfortable on a cold October weekend. No, I'm not going to attach a pic.

And They Have A Wedding Plan

Got a bit of an unexpected sci-fi surprise this afternoon when I went to a friend's wedding: a Cylon. Or, at least, a Cylon on a street banner in one of the wedding pictures.

After the ceremony a bunch of us were walking through the venue's foyer to the reception hall, and along the way we had to pass one of the wedding pictures (shot way ahead of time last winter, I believe) blown up, printed out to look like a painting, and mounted for everyone to look at as they went by. At first we murmured the usual "oh, that's nice" comments, and wondered which building and street were featured, etc. But on closer inspection, one of my friends said "Hey, there's a Cylon on that sign!" We couldn't believe it at first, but leaning in and peering at it for a second, we realized he was right.

Problem is that neither the bride nor groom are big SF fans, and there's no indication that they followed Battlestar Galactica when it was on. So what's a Cylon banner doing in one of their wedding pictures, and one that they liked enough to pay to have painting-ized to show off for generations to come? And what would a Cylon banner be doing up in Metro Vancouver (where the bride lives and the wedding was held), especially when it's been a couple of years since the series came to a close?

Well, to make a long story short, last winter when they'd arranged to bring in some hotshot celebrity photographer from Hong Kong he'd been denied entry to Canada and sent back to Seattle where his connecting flight had originated. Not wanting to lose him, they'd changed plans, packed up all the wedding garb and driven south of the 49th to do the shoot in the Emerald City. They went to a lot of locations downtown and around the market, so we figure this street must be in the vicinity of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Can't be entirely sure since I haven't made a pilgrimage there myself yet, but there wouldn't be any reason for the city to have a Cylon banner displayed anywhere else. Our bet is that they didn't even pay attention to what was on the banner when they took the shot - it was probably done for artsy-fartsy reasons like lighting and the shape of the building, etc. Our young newlyweds probably picked the photo for similar reasons, not even realizing they were inadvertently flying a pretty obvious freak flag.

No point in explaining it to them, since not being fans and not following Western culture much, they wouldn't really get it.

Still, as a science fiction fan - and a BSG fan in particular - I'm fairly pleased at this accidental geek-0ut. You just never know when SF will quietly insinuate itself into the every day activities of the mainstream.

VCon 36 - Day 3

The end.

Okay, it was a short day for me at VCon today, but it wasn't that short!

I starting things off far too early in the morning (considering how late I was up last night reporting on the con and ranting about 'Yamato), stumbling in at 10 for the "World Building 101" panel, which featured a line-up of scientists from various disciplines talking about what science fiction writers need to consider (genetics, ecology, astronomical processes) in order to get their alien worlds right - or, at least believable enough from a scientific perspective not to sound dumb. They also discussed how the latest strange scientific discoveries and theories can also open up new creative frontiers for writers. One of the best lines of the morning - hell, one of the best lines I heard throughout the entire con - was from astronomer Dr. Jaymie Matthews (a venerable fixture at VCons, and also co-star of a Goodyear Tire commercial a couple of years ago) while he related a story about how James Cameron has been consulting with scientists about his Avatar sequel. According to Matthews, Cameron's thinking about combining his love of oceans with SF by setting the next movie on one of Pandora's neighbouring moons that's a giant water world. Matthews says that since astronomers have been able to tell Cameron that yes, aquatic super-Earths are possible, they have "given [Cameron] his wet dream."

After that I ducked out for a quick lunch, and when I came back I took in the last few minutes of the "Are Games Art?" session. Video game producer & designer Palle Hoffstein led the audience in a discussion about Roger Ebert's statement that video games are not art and never will be. From what I caught of the session, the audience consensus (not surprisingly) was that Ebert is wrong. Hoffstein noted that historically there's always a period of adjustment when new media are invented, with critics having been slow initially to accept photography, film and comics as art, and that video games are probably now waiting for their breakthrough moment to be accepted just as the other forms of media have. He also pointed out that one of the factors that's allowing this delay of acceptance to continue is a lack of evolution of written critiques of games beyond their value-for-money or quality of graphics and action - games are not yet being discussed for their artistic merit. Not being a gamer myself (or, at least, sitting down to video games only occasionally), I can't comment on the issue, but it was certainly fascinating to listen in.

From there, sadly, it became a chore to find something worthwhile to attend in the short time left before I had to leave the con. I'd really wanted to attend the "Podcasting" session to pick up some technical tips because I'm toying with the idea of occasionally melding my radio roots with the blog here with an occasional feature interview. More to come as - or if - it happens. Unfortunately, I hadn't bothered to look at the scheduling changes board earlier, and so hadn't seen that the podcasting session had been shifted to Saturday once the con got underway, and I'd unwittingly missed out.

As a backup, I'd wanted to go to the "How did that get on my book cover?" session featuring authors, artists and publishers talking about how cover art is chosen, but that too had been moved. Instead, that conference room had a panel talking about the benefits of exercise. Now, I've got a bunch of friends who are personal trainers, and despite my portly frame I do try to get a walk or workout in a semi-regular basis, so the last thing I need to listen to at the con is someone preaching about fitness. Rather than having a panel discussion sitting in a room talking about fitness, I think if the intent is to get nerds moving then the VCon organizers could have chosen a more creative and effective option: they could have taken the lead from the Montreal Worldcon in 2009, which, as part of programming, organized 1-hour walks each morning where fans could go out for a walk around the town with various authors in attendance, thereby combining exercise with the opportunity to chat with a favourite writer and see a little more of the host community beyond the confines of the convention centre/hotel/satellite ring of restaurants.

Bailing out on that panel fairly quickly, I wandered into the "Turkey Readings" for a little while. The Turkey Readings are a VCon tradition, where a panel of authors reads passages from a selection of painfully bad science fiction and fantasy novels (seriously, these rags are frequently the "literary" equivalent of Plan Nine from Outer Space or Robot Monster). Meanwhile, volunteers from the audience come up to the front to act out what's being read. The rest of the audience can then bid money to make the whole thing stop, or counter-bid to continue, with a fair amount of back-and-forth happening before someone finally bids enough to force an end. And then they start again with another selection from the trash pile. Money raised goes to the Canadian Unity Fan Fund which sends fans from one part of the country to attend cons in other provinces in an effort to bring us closer together.

But there's only so much of the Turkey Readings that I can tolerate before I feel my tenuous grip on sanity slipping away, so I fled that room after a while and spent a few minutes quietly reading from the new Tesseracts anthology in the hall.

The last session I attended was "Writing about Fighting", which is pretty self-explanatory. Didn't get to stay for the whole thing though because I had to get home to get changed and go to a friend's wedding later in the afternoon. The early departure meant I had to miss the infamous Elron Awards and the Closing Ceremonies, but I've been to enough of those over the years that, while they're entertaining, my con experience certainly won't be ruined by taking a miss.

So how was my VCon 36 experience? For the most part, pretty good. The programming selection may not always be full of "can't miss" sessions, but there's usually a panel worth attending, the movie room (with its constant bombardment of chocolate from Uncle Victor) is good to spend a couple of hours in, there are always great costumes to look at, and interesting and unexpected conversations with fellow fans. At the end of the day, I have to say the reason why I keep coming back year after year is that feeling I get when I walk in the door on the first day, look around at the other fans and the displays, and head for the registration desk: that feeling of coming home.

Thanks, VCon.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

VCon 36 - Day 2

Today I probably spent more time in Uncle Victor's movie room than going to panel discussions, but that's okay. You can't complain about a day at VCon when you come home with free toys and food.

The day's con-going started for me around noon; I arrived at the hotel and found the Ghostbusters of Alberta had parked their Ecto-1EH right across from the front entrance, so, as promised I grabbed a couple of snapshots. Typical cellphone cam, most of them aren't great, but this one is good enough to show the love the group's put into this old wagon.

Anyhow, the first session of the day for me was "Computer Science in Science Fiction - Ahead of or Behind Our Time?" I'd missed about half of it, but it was still pretty interesting, with speaker Tamara Munzner weighing some of the advances of the last couple of decades against areas that have lagged somewhat. Examples included the rapid increases seen in processing power over the years while video display capabilities haven't evolved anywhere near as quickly.

After that it was over to the "Author GOH Interview" to listen to VCon elder statesman Michael Walsh do a Q&A with Larry Niven. Pretty entertaining for the most part, with the old author sharing funny musings about his "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" essay (if you enjoyed the conversation in Kevin Smith's Mallrats about the perils of Lois Lane's relationship with Superman, here's - directly or indirectly - the source material), or dropping lines like "Remember, I'm allowed to make up my facts." when talking about how rigorous to be with science in hard science fiction. It was also interesting to hear him talk about his membership in Sigma, a think tank of SF writers supplying advice to the US government and some NGO's. What I could have done without was the extended foray into his Libertarian views, but I blame Walsh for leading him down the path to spout that nonsense.

When that was over I headed over to the "Food in Science Fiction" panel (which, incidentally, Niven participated in) which talked about the role of food in SF and culture (human and alien), the impact of different biologies on the types of food consumed, various foods that have appeared in SF, etc. While they did touch on the issue of foods being unique to their home planets because alien species, having different biologies, wouldn't be able to digest or derive all their required nutrition from them (never mind if those food weren't downright poisonous to them), what they didn't discuss were the rare, but highly amusing instances of universal foods that pop up from time to time: Gin & Tonics (courtesy of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) and Swedish Meatballs (Babylon 5). Good food for thought, anyway.

I took a bit of a break after that, wandering through the Art Room and Dealers' Room again, and stopping to chat with a rep from the group putting in a bid to host Worldcon 2015 in Spokane, Washington. Apparently their competition at this point is Orlando, with a group there wanting to host the event in a section of the Disneyworld complex. Tough choice. Spokane's certainly a lot closer and it's nowhere near as hot, but if the con was in The Mouse's lair I wouldn't have to worry about how to convince my wife to okay the trip - she'd be booking the tickets so fast my head would spin, just so she could indulge in her love of Disney while I was getting my geek on. I have to confess I wouldn't mind going to Disneyworld for the con either, as it's been nearly 30 years since I was there last. Ah well, I don't follow the travelling Worldcon roadshow closely enough to keep an eye out for location voting opportunities or rules anyway. When I hear which way the vote goes, I'll make my decision whether to attend or not.

Then it was up to Uncle Victor's movie room to catch the screening of the 2010 live action version of Space Battleship Yamato (warning: heavy spoilage to ensue). My favourite TV show when I was a little kid was Starblazers (the North American name for the original animated SBY series), so I was itching to see this flick since the rumours and trailers started surfacing a couple of years ago. For the most part it was a lot of fun. The battleship itself has been brought to life in glorious photo-real CG, the battle scenes are fast-paced, and the robot (well, hand-held AI for most of the movie, but he gets a full body at the end with a head that's a nice nod to the old series), Analyzer in this version, though known as IQ-9 in Starblazers, gets a badass upgrade. And I didn't mind that the writers merged Iscandar and Gamilas/Gamilon into one planet, with their respective leaders made into seemingly individual faces representing the hive minds of their species, like non-corporeal versions of the Borg queen. Sure, some of the dialogue is corny from time to time, there are plot points that don't make sense (like Yamato not bothering to use its fighter squadron for defense while waiting for Kodai/Wildstar to rescue Yuki from her damaged Black Tiger), Captain Okita seems to have no facial expression whatsoever (seriously, the puppets in Disney's "It's a Small World" ride have more animation), the actor who plays Kodai looks like a younger version of the original Iron Chef's Chairman Kaga, and the embodiment of the Gamilas consciousness (at least in its subterranean lair) looked a lot like the MCP tower in Tron minus the face, but for the most part it was worth watching.

I say "for the most part" because of two major flaws. The first - and worst - was an immensely disturbing moment in Kodai's rousing speech before the attack on Iscandar/Gamilas where he refers to the original sea-going Yamato as a symbol of "hope" when it was launched in 1942. Hope? Really? I know, I know; this is a Japanese-made film made, primarily, for a Japanese audience. But don't tell me that the writers, producers and directors of this movie aren't aware that in the nearly 40 years since the animated series was created, the franchise has developed a major international audience (hell, they're probably well aware of it as a source for bonus revenue with overseas distribution or sales) that might catch this stinky little piece of dialogue and see it for what it is. And that's a shocking lack of awareness of and/or repentance for Japan's actions during World War II. Let's be very clear: Yamato was a dreadnought manufactured by a vicious regime hell-bent on taking over Asia to strip other nations of their resources and enslave and massacre the people of those nations. Yamato was one of the instruments they used to try to enforce that theft, enslavement, torture and despicable experimentation, and murder. Hope? Why not ask Chinese or Koreans or Filipinos or Allied servicemen or anyone else who got in Japan's gunsights during the war whether that's an appropriate word to use? Old warships are cool to look at, but let's not sugarcoat the very real horror that this thing represented. If the writers had put in something about redeeming the ship's past, that would have showed maturity and a full understanding of history. But they didn't. No, they quaff deeply of their koolaid of glory and airbrush the shit out of the past.

Second, and less offensive, was the unforgivably tedious arming of the ultimate weapon and sad farewell to the hero. When the Gamilas warship moves into orbit it takes forever to arm its final, huge, ultimate planet bomb - so long that it never gets around to firing. Remember how Star Trek: Nemesis dragged-out the Scimitar's reconfiguration and the arming of its mega deathbeam? That's got nothing on the pokiness of the Gamilas. Seriously, if the Yamato hadn't been there to make a pest of itself, the people of Earth would still have had enough time for a complete evacuation, terraforming another world, recolonization, and turkey dinner before that damn missile was ready to fire. As part of this act in the flick, the audience is forced to endure the endless, melodramatic goodbye between Kodai and Yuki. Really, the fight should have been over by the time she was hauled off the bridge. If it hadn't taken the Gamilas so long to prep their big missile, the movie really would have been over while those two were still clinging and gasping over one-another (really, the actress who played Yuki did not seem capable of actually crying in any of her crying scenes in the film, and appears to have settled on hyperventilation as an acceptable alternative) or the crew were still having another sad, last-minute bye-bye wave to Kodai. That farewell took so long - how long did it take?! - that farewell took so long that by the time it was over, the Earth could have naturally recovered on its own with rats having evolved into the next dominant form of life with their own technological civilization capable of taking on the fight with the Gamilas - like The Secret of NIMH, except with spaceships and not as creepy. That being said, despite its shortcomings, SBY is mostly worth watching. Mostly.

I then stepped out for a while for supper, coming back to take in the last few minutes of the "Justify the Science Flaw" panel, which was coming up with some pretty funny scientifically plausible explanations for everything from how ravenous zombies would be able to wait without food until the next batch of unwary living people blundered by, or how Spiderman would be able to climb walls using real spider attributes despite his human size.

Then it was back up to the movie room for a screening of Ghostbusters, with commentary and trivia by members of the Alberta and BC chapters of the Ghostbusters fan group. Prior to the film actually getting under way, movie room host Uncle Victor, in addition to handing out lots of chocolate to all in attendance, also gave out some prizes. One prize, in honour of Mr Staypuft, was a marshmallow gun and a bag of large marshmallows (perfect for campfires, but sadly incompatible with the gun, which only takes mini marshmallows). It was initially given to a woman in the audience, but she wasn't interested and ended up giving it to me, which was great because my wife and I will make use of the marshmallows for baking and the launcher will be a nice addition to whatever we get our nephew for Christmas. Anyhow, once the swag was dispensed, the fanboys treated the audience to a bunch of clips from classic Ghostbusters-like features (including one of my favourites: a very old Disney Hallowe'en short about Mickey, Donald and Goofy and their "Ajax Ghost Exterminator" company misadventures in a haunted house), TV shows from the 80's trying to capitalize on Ghostbusters' success, and, of course, Ray Parker Junior's music video. Eventually, the movie itself got underway. The commentary from the fan group members skirted between being the right amount of cool factoids and trivia overkill. Everyone laughed when they talked about researching acceptable dosages of Thorazine and how Venkman's administration of 300 cc's of the stuff to Dana/Zul was probably enough to kill an elephant, never mind the unsettling question of what he was doing bringing a syringe with that much of the drug with him on what he had initially assumed would be a date. But there were also moments, especially near the end, when the panel got gabbing about too much unimportant minutia and it was kind of annoying when this drowned-out some of the movie's really good dialogue. Ah well. It was a good evening and if I want to watch the movie without interruptions, I can pop it in the DVD player sometime (which I'll probably do this month anyway).

And that was it for today.

Must hit the sack now, as I want to take in a couple of sessions tomorrow morning and morning will be coming waaaaaaaay too early.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

VCon 36 - Day 1 - supplemental

Forgot to mention an odd conversation today in the previous post:

At the end of the closing of the Opening Ceremonies today, some guy came up to me as I was heading for the door and said: "Hey! Did you know you look exactly like Gordie Freeman?!"

I'm not really a gamer, so I didn't know about Dr. Gordon Freeman from "Half-Life".

He went on to talk about how I apparently resemble Freeman in this way or that way, and gave me a brief background of the character as scientist and badass.

Badass? Well, I look like a fatass, but certainly not a toughguy.

I did a quick web check a couple of minutes ago and I really don't think I look like Freeman, but I've decided to take it as a compliment.

Hey, beats being told you look like Q-Bert.

Sent from my iPhone

VCon 36 - Day 1

Another year, another VCon. While nothing really wowed me about the programming schedule ahead of time, there's still something comforting and homey about the con (in a geeky sort of way) that makes me look forward to going back each year.

VCon 36 got off to a bit of a late start for me... I don't think I arrived until just before 4:00, which is okay because while registration and some of the displays and movies fire up at noon, most of the major sessions don't get under way until about 4, and there was nothing that was really standing out to me right away. I knew things were beginning well right after I finished at the registration desk when I was called over to a display table run by the Ghostbusters of Alberta fan group. Seems one of them had taken a liking to the "White & Nerdy" t-shirt I'd picked up at a Weird Al concert a few years ago and wanted to know if they could pick one up locally. Sadly, there's no local connection for Yankovic merchandise that I know of when he isn't coming through on tour. That being said, we had a nice chat and I had a good long look at some of their equipment. I don't know which was more awesome: their replica proton pack signed by Dan "Ray Stantz" Ackroyd, or the club's white stationwagon out in the parking log tricked out to look like the Ecto-1 (or, the Ecto-1EH as they call it, eh). Will try to grab some pix tomorrow to share. Lots of other great costumes out and about today as well, especially with the 501st Legion out in full force (pun intended).

From there I did the usual prowl around to get a feel for a layout of the convention hall's various session rooms, the dealers' room, the art room, Uncle Victor's movie room and the hotel in general. Bit of an unusual experience in the art room though... Larry Niven, who's the con's Author Guest of Honour this year, had been in there looking around and shooting the breeze with the room supervisor; after a while, round about the time I was looking at the cool Chinese steampunk prints by James Ng, I hear Niven walk over to the entrance to get his bag or whatever from the room supervisor on the way out the door, and while he was waiting he started singing "Some Enchanted Evening". Not big, loud, room-filling singing, mind you, just that sort of that light, only somewhat audible, half-unconcious singing that some people do where others might just hum or whistle. Didn't last too long though before he got his bag and was off about his business. Really not something I expected. And ya know, he may be a good writer, but that singing is really not something I'd want to hear again.

The Opening Ceremonies were thankfully light and pretty quick. Anyone who's been to cons knows that when the mic starts getting passed around the front table during introductions there's the serious potential for people to start talking and just not stop, but this year's VCon front table team didn't waste any time. Indeed, probably the longest spiel came from Niven, who rambled on for about 10 minutes on the subject of his 1971 book Lucifer's Hammer, the chances of a person getting killed by a meteorite, the risk of comets and asteroids to the Earth, his book Lucifer's Hammer, nuking said celestial bodies, other means of pushing in-bound threats away, an amusing anecdote about John W. Campbell and Analog in the 40's having to do with atomic weapons, oh, and did I mention Lucifer's Hammer and nuking space rocks? Still not entirely sure what all that had to do with "here we are at VCon", but it was kind of entertaining anyway.

From there it was on to physicist Rob Knop's "The Science Behind Larry Niven's Neutron Star", with Niven himself sitting in the audience. A good general lecture on neutron stars, gravity, tidal forces and basic physics.

Next I ambled over to the Book Launch for a couple of minutes to ask Niven to autograph my copy of Ringworld and the first page of his short story "Not Long Before the End" in The Oxford Book of Fantasy. Asking him to sign his contribution to TOBOF is something that's a couple of years overdue for me. I just happened to be reading not only that anthology, but that very story a couple of years ago when I was attending Worldcon in Montreal and ran into Niven at a session one morning. We were both sitting in the back row and I had the book in my bag and figured I'd ask for his autograph when the panelists were done. Problem was, a couple of minutes after the session got started, the old author nodded off. He was still asleep an hour later when the discussion came to an end and I didn't think it would be right to wake him to pester him for his signature. Luckily he was wide awake this evening.

After that it was down to the hotel bar for a leisurely supper watching the first quarter of the Lions-Eskimos game with fellow con-goers and other hotel guests. Hats off to the kitchen for doing a delightful scratch-made caramel bread pudding. Not only was it tasty, it was huge: as big as the Death Star and probably quite capable of destroying the blood sugar levels of an entire planet.

My next session after dinner was "Our Green Future Does Not Have to be Soylent". What was supposed to be a panel discussion about the possibility of a sustainable future given human population growth and activity degenerated after just a few minutes into a sustained diatribe about the general uselessness and evils of government and business. Now, I'm not going to chug koolaid and defend irresponsible political decision making or blind corporate self-interest, but on the other hand I would certainly have appreciated a more balanced discussion because not everything has gone to pot, and, call me a hopeless optimist, I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that as a species we've slotted ourselves and our planet into a straight line towards extinction. I suspect our remarkable ability to adapt may buy us at least a small chance of survival.

At any rate, the last panel I attended today was "Old School Vampires", where the folklore origins of these creatures of the night were explored, along with discussions of their evolution to the portrayal of vampires that we know today. It was pretty informative and moved along quickly, and while the panelists weren't able to completely avoid discussing the current Stephanie Meyer spin on the undead, they did make every effort to not dwell too much on sparkly vampires that suck.

Speaking of creatures that stay up all night, I've spend half it already and should probably turn in so I don't miss all of tomorrow's programming.

Stay tuned for the next VCon 36 update tomorrow night, and of course the odd Twitter update as things unfold.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Tearin' up the Town

Forget about Zeus ordering the Kraken to "Destroy Argos!" in Clash of the Titans, a bunch of students at the Vancouver Film School issued the order to "Destroy Vancouver" for an assignment a couple of years ago, and they didn't pull any punches.

Though it was brought to my attention just a couple of days ago, it looks like the "Destroy Vancouver" project has been online for a couple of years. That being said, it's definitely worth watching for fans of science fictional mayhem - whether you're a Lower Mainlander or someone who's only visited the city, or even if you've never been in this neck of the woods at all. Clicking on the link takes to you to a standard Google map of Vancouver, with a number of neighbourhoods or landmark buildings flagged. Rather than giving you the standard photo and address of said building or neighbourhood, clicking on each flag gives a summary of a short visual effects reel put together by a particular student who's chosen that location as his or her target for annihilation. From there you can link to Youtube to watch the destruction in question.

Overall, the students' work is pretty awesome. There's a lot of creativity in the choices of means of devastation and a fantastic attention to detail in depicting it. The degree of SFX artwork varies from reel to reel - some are spot-on photorealistic, while others are good but still have the somewhat animated look of, say, the later additions to the Babylon 5 franchise. The length varies too, with some features running just a few seconds to show off post-apocalyptic cityscapes, while others go for more than a minute blasting out action-packed SF mini movies.

Of the 19 reels offered on the map, my top 5 favourites were:

5) Whale City by Taeyoung Kim - No actual destruction of the Downtown business district in this one, but it's just so pretty to watch that I had to include it in the top 5.

4) Experiment 8 by Juan Carlos Mendoza - Another reel featuring a gigantic sea animal, but this time, this beastie runs amok in and on the Vancouver Sun and Province building and the nearby plaza. While the lead actress could have done a better job playing the reporter, the berserk mega octopus was top notch.

3) The Levis HVC by Nicholas Markel - A well-animated and funny public service announcement about personally-owned flying cars versus public transit. That being said, I still want my own flying car!

2) The untitled robotic orb short from Ed Holdsworth felt cold and downright creepy. There's a price to pay for being a Yaletown yuppie I guess.

1) The Steam Tank by Chris Paul - A steampunk tank slugging it out with a sniper up in the old Sun Tower on the Downtown East Side - what's not to love?!

I don't know if this is a regular assignment at VFS, but if it is, it's certainly something the organizers of VCon should incorporate as a special feature in the movie room. I'd love to see a showcase of new SF shorts like this become a standard part of the con. Too late to forward the idea to the con organizers to consider for this year's event (VCon 36 kicks off Friday Sept. 30 for anyone still thinking of attending); I'll have to remember to include this in my suggestions for next year.

Thanks to Steve for passing along the "Destroy Vancouver" site.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Dead Air

By strange coincidence, it's been a week for the undead as far as TV & online video watching around our house goes.

First up, this week's installment of Epic Mealtime featured Harley, Muscles Glasses and the rest of the gang of gluttons getting all zombied-up to cook - brraaaaaaaainssss! (what else?) Not sure whether it was calf or lamb brains on the menu, but as usual their concoctions looked pretty tasty.

Then last night's episode of CBC's The Debaters (episode 15, halfway through for anyone following the link) devoted its second round to grappling with the question of "Zombies vs. Vampires" - which is the superior undead? Comedians/pundits Kristeen Von Hagen (pro-vampire) and Pete Zedlacher (pro-zombie) traded barbs that were worth a chuckle. Best shots of the debate:
Von Hagen: "Zombies shuffle around slowly and mumble - so they're like an episode of The Golden Girls."
Zedlacher: "Vampires don't go into your house until they're invited - like Jehovah's Witnesses."

Throw in the occasional rewatch of an episode or two of the 90's reboot of Dark Shadows on Netflix and it seems my viewing habits are getting rather grave. Grave. Get it? Grave? Haha, haha, ha, huh, uh. Yeah, that joke died.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Come On, Geeks: Get Out There and Do Some Good

Sunday started far too early for my liking, but it was a beautiful day for a walk in the park for a good cause. My wife and I got up early and drove into Vancouver to Stanley Park to participate in the annual Parkinson SuperWalk fundraiser, hosted in this neck of the woods by the Parkinson Society of British Columbia. My mom was diagnosed with Parkinson's several years ago when she was in her mid-late 50's, so this event's got a personal meaning to me. As a result, my wife and I have been taking part for the past few years.

Shortly after arriving we met our friend Jill Sanagan, co-owner of White Dwarf Books, who was there with her father who's fighting Parkinson Disease (the picture, from left to right: Jill, her father, and the tubby gent in the cap is me). It's always nice to chat with people at events like these, but even better when you run into friends, and most especially when they're fellow SF fans turning out to do some good.

Once things got under way we split up: Jill and her dad doing the shorter 2km walk around Lost Lagoon, and my wife and I heading off for the 7km walk along the Seawall and then through the heart of the park (I lumber along at a pretty quick march, but the wife likes to run and goes tearing off, waiting once in a while to take the odd photo as I catch up, then bolting to the finish line). I ended up finishing with a time of about 1:13, and I'm very grateful to the friends who so generously sponsored my efforts.

The point of this wandering little tale though is not to brag about my speed (or lack thereof) in taking a stroll by the sea on a sunny morning, or to teeter atop a moral high-horse, but to remind all of my fellow fanboys and fangirls out there that you can do good in your community. It isn't that hard and every little bit counts for a lot.

I say this because I know far too many geeks who don't really contribute much to the community. Oh, they're good friends and nice enough people. They work hard and are wonderful to geek-out with about this book or that movie or TV show, but they don't give much back. They don't do fundraisers or volunteer or support the efforts of others. And really, I have to ask, why not?

Sure, everybody's busy. Work takes up an obscene amount of time for most people these days. People have to, and should, make time for their families and friends. Then there's allotting time for reading or watching whatever or gaming or going online to endlessly rant about the afore-mentioned stuff. But that's not really enough. If you don't do anything, you don't make your community better in a general sense; you miss out on an opportunity to broaden your horizons, test your skills, meet new people and help turn a bad situation around; and let's face it, if you don't reach out to others, you're feeding into the stereotype of the socially-crippled nerd holed-up in his basement disconnected from the outside world. To be fair, it seems to be a social trend these days for a lot of people, not just geeks, to tune out their surrounding physical community and to just focus on themselves and their personal networks. But that's not something that will make us a better society or better individuals in the long run. And it's something we can change.

To make communities that work well, that are the places where we truly want to live, to better ourselves and create a better impression of who we are, we have to give something back. And the thing is, geeks are the perfect people to do that. We're smart, creative, hard-working, highly-motivated and highly-networked. We're the perfect people to draw attention to a good cause and to raise money to support an effort to make things better. We should be leading the charge!

There are lots of cases where fanboys and fangirls are making things better, at blood drives and community events and fundraisers for all kinds of special causes, and that's awesome. But there are plenty who don't. And they should.

So here's my challenge, fellow geeks: get out there and do some good! Find a good cause, any cause that helps other people or makes your community better and get behind it. Donate your time, maybe a little spare funding, or go out and be the fundraiser or contribute your special area of expertise. Round up your local Brown Coat chapter or Trek starship crew or Gilligan's Island Ginger vs Mary-Anne debate society or whatever and pitch in at a community event. Strike out on your own and join a volunteer group or raise funds for a charity. Put in an hour or two in a one-shot effort, or contribute on an ongoing basis. If you know someone who's holed-up in their basement not doing anything, give them a verbal kick in the ass and get them participating. And if your friends are involved in something and they ask for your support, back them to the hilt. The bottom line is that the old cliche is right: we're all in this together so you might as well make an effort to make things better. Find a good cause and get involved.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

What Books Would You Recommend to a Former Fan Getting Back into SF?

A while ago a friend came to town for a visit and asked to see the near-mythical White Dwarf I'm always on about. Once at the store, after a few minutes of poking around, she made a confession: she hasn't really read any fantasy or science fiction for the past two or three years.

I was pretty stunned. For years we'd been trading recommendations back and forth, and if that hadn't happened recently, I just hadn't noticed. Her excuse was a good one though: taking another degree over the past couple of years, along with working a couple of jobs to pay for it, has eaten up most of her spare time and disposable income. Now things have balanced out a little better and she wants to get back into the genre. Traditionally she'd been more of a fantasy fan, but in addition to picking that up again, she also wanted to start reading more science fiction. Not knowing who was worth reading these days, she asked for some recommendations.

I immediately began capering around the store, pulling out titles from authors and series that she'd liked before, as well as plenty of suggestions aimed at broadening her horizons. Looking back, I was kind of like Jack Black's character Barry in the movie version of High Fidelity, in the scene where he attempts to re-educate the Echo & The Bunneymen fan - except not quite as rude. Not quite.

She'd fallen away from Robert Jordon's The Wheel of Time books, so I started with Brandon Sanderson's additions to the series. Since you can't read epic fantasy these days without talking George RR Martin, A Game of Thrones was tossed onto the pile in the hopes that she'd read through to the newest installment, A Dance with Dragons, quickly. I continued my assault - er, recommendations - with Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind, Neil Gaiman's American Gods (not a new book, I know, but worth including in the re-education project) and Peter S. Beagle's Sleight of Hand. Then, injecting a dose of steampunk, I desperately tried to find a copy of Cherie Priest's Boneshaker (sadly, sold out). From there I pointed to Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon. Then it was on to Kit Reed's Enclave, Cory Doctorow's Overclocked (though deliberately avoiding the much-lauded Little Brother because the narrator's frequent, lengthy explanations of whatever fascinates him drag the plot to a screeching halt far too often and ultimately kill the story and its very important message; and not makers, which shuffled along like a short story stretched far, far too thin to make the novel it was trying to be), Dan Simmons' Hyperion, Spider Robinson's Very Bad Deaths (yes, I know, two more old ones), Robert Charles Wilson's Spin and Neal Stephenson's Anathem.

And if I'd had more time, I would have added more. But the pile was already high and teetering by then. And that's also when my friend confessed she could only buy one book. She ended up choosing one that had ben recommended by the store's owner, Jill (and I can't remember the title for the life of me), which is fine, and added all the titles I was now reshelving to her "to buy" and "library" lists.

But it was a good exercise none-the-less, because it got me thinking about the important issue of SF books that can re-fire the imagination of a lapsed fan, which is a different challenge than choosing gateway books to create a new fan.

And so I put the question to you, fellow fans, what books would you recommend to a lapsed fan thinking about coming back to the genre?

Yes, I know, who the person is and what their past science fiction and/or fantasy preferences were (as well as current preferences for non-SF fiction) factor into the decision of what to recommend. But I think we can put the worry about subjectiveness aside because there must be some recent SF books (let's say released in the past 5 years or so - but that's not a hard and fast requirement) that are just so good that they're almost guaranteed to re-stoke the passion for the genre and really should be read by all existing fans and wayward former fans coming back to the fold. What are they?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Darth Fiddler Preyed upon by Thugs from the Dark Side

Geeks and non-geeks alike are outraged after local news outlets have reported Victoria busker Darth Fiddler has been attacked by thugs.

The violin-playing Sith lord has been a fixture for years in the city's historic and touristy Inner Harbour area. His repertoire includes a mean rendition of the Imperial March.

Darth Fiddler as always been one of the highlights for us when my wife and I make the occasional trip across the Straight of Georgia to the capital. In fact, I remember a few years ago when I was working with an organization that was holding its annual convention in Victoria's Empress Hotel, and there were a couple of days that were just absolute hell in terms of putting up with undeserved crap from the boss (who could have been a Sith lord herself, except for her profound lack of intelligence and eerie resemblance to a Vogon in a blond wig), but at the end of the day, when I had a few hours to myself, I'd amble around the Inner Harbour, and seeing Darth Fiddler capering about sawing madly away on his black instrument always put a smile on my face.

I hope Darth Fiddler recovers soon and hits the streets again to share the Force of his musical talents.

Meanwhile, I hope the cops catch the nurf-herders who beat him and toss them into a trash compactor.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Top 5 SF Megaprojects that Would Have Had a Tough Time Getting Budget Approval

Anyone who's followed the news when a megaproject is proposed, like a new hydro-electric dam, or a highway or railway, or the design, construction and purchase of a fleet of new ferries, knows that there are huge obstacles to getting budget approval for them. Politicians, bureaucrats, business interests, lobby groups and the public can all stonewall spending in one way or another, sometimes making it a miracle that anything large and expensive gets accomplished at all.

Speculative fiction is full of megaprojects. Everything from city-sized space stations to colonizing expeditions to super weapon development. Some of these expenses are understandable because there may have been cost-sharing (like the Babylon stations in Babylon 5) or long-term benefits or the unifying motivation of national pride or a rich guy's personal dream fulfillment (such as Sad King Billy's city of poets in Hyperion) or whatever. But others make me think they probably got a pretty rough ride in budgetary hearings before they got a grudging go-ahead to start cutting cheques and begin development.

Here are, to me anyway,

The Top 5 Megaprojects that Would Have Had a Tough Time Getting Budget Approval:

5) The Starfighter Legion - from The Last Starfighter
When the peaceful Star League is confronted with imminent invasion by the Ko-Dan Empire and its ally, the traitor Xur, its citizens begin allocating resources to the construction of a military base and a fleet of Gunstars, along with a program to recruit and train starfighters and navigators to man the heavy fighters. Problem is, the people of Rylos - and we're led to believe the citizens of the other League worlds as well - are pacifists. For thousands of years they've worked to weed-out violence in their culture until it is virtually non-existant. What's more, the mere thought of violence makes them physically ill (as evidenced by the look of distaste on the Rylan official's face when he talks about the "gift" to be starfighters, and the novelization where author Alan Dean Foster goes into greater detail about the level of discomfort brought about by thoughts of violence). Anyone in this society who is even remotely tetchy is treated for mental illness, hence the great challenge of finding those capable of not only working on the base, but actually piloting the spacecraft and firing their weapons. You'd think in a society so relentlessly pacifistic there would be serious political, bureaucratic and public opposition to paying for this project. It would be easy to believe that there would be a big push to instead use the funding to support the superior scientific minds of the League in a project to simply augment the defensive shielding of their Frontier drones to do a better job of keeping the warlike aliens out. There must've been some serious political wrangling to get the Legion's budget approved in the years and months before the actual Ko-Dan attack.

4) The repair/replacement bill for the ships lost fighting the Reavers over Mr Universe's moon - from Serenity
So many ships damaged or destroyed, so many lives lost, so many angry surviving families and insurance companies with so very many lawyers. There's no doubt that in the wake of the firefight over Mr Universe's moon at the end of Serenity that some hard questions were asked in Parliament. And not just about the release of classified information on the planetary pacification program or the Reavers. No, there would be some bureaucrats and politicians seriously cheezed about the titanic expenses resulting from when one Operative went wild and pushed an independent contractor freighter captain of marginal legality into severely escalating a custody dispute. The cost of the lawsuit settlements for benefits payouts alone would constitute a megaproject, never mind the money needed to repair whatever crippled Alliance ships that managed to limp away from the fiasco. Then there would be the parliamentary bill to build replacement ships for the ones destroyed in the fight - lots of new capital ships and support vessels with the latest technology from a whole assortment of design firms and contractors just waiting to cash-in. No, it wouldn't be cheap, and it sure wouldn't be easy to get that past the Alliance's naval budgetary appropriations committee. No bureaucrat would want to divert money from their pre-existing budgets, and no Member of Parliament would want to go back to their world and have to explain to taxpayers why their taxes were going to jump to pay for a massive military replacement.

3) The Ringworld - from Ringworld, by Larry Niven
The idea of the Ringworld, or any Dyson sphere or similar supermassive construction really, has always struck me as alternately ultra-cool and yet politically and economically ridiculous. Here's a culture that's decided (maybe because it likes the idea of maximizing the efficient use of energy from its parent star, maybe because it likes the idea of having a whole lotta land so everyone can have a really big back yard with a swimming pool, maybe because it likes the idea of staying close to home) to sink staggering resources (as in quite likely tearing apart all planets in the solar system) over huge amounts of time into building a ring or a shell around a star. Now, if your civilization had that level of knowledge and technology to build the ultimate mega project, wouldn't you also be able to figure out that it would probably just be quicker, easier and cheaper to colonize other habitable worlds in other star systems? Remember, in Niven's Known Space, faster-than-light travel is possible, so high-tailing off to colonize other planets isn't too big of a deal. And when you're talking about a civilization with the ability to tear apart whole planets to build massive constructions around a star, it's not like there's be much chance of serious opposition from native species on those prospective colony worlds. They colonizers could simply break out the mass-drivers, snag some local asteroids, and bomb them back into the stone age - with stones! - then move in and rebuild their society on the new world. You'd also think that a civilization with this capability would know that stars don't last forever, sooner or later they swell into red giants and die off. Any civilization that's building a ring or sphere is clearly in it for the long haul, and should realize its super-long-term chances of survival are best served by moving to other younger star systems, rather than hanging around the home system in a ring or sphere that's going to be torn apart, melted, or otherwise destroyed when the home star starts to expand in its grumpy old age. Because of this, I have to wonder if when the builders first proposed the Ringworld to others of their civilization, if they weren't met with opposition from more conservative elements who would refuse to spend the time, effort, and possibly money on a project that's doomed in the long term and certainly more costly than just packing up the kids and moving to the next system over.

2) The Encyclopedia Foundation - from Foundation, by Isaac Asimov
In the last years of the Galactic Empire, psychohistorian Hari Seldon has crunched the numbers and knows he has to set up a colony on the outskirts of civilization to preserve knowledge and shorten the dark age that lies ahead from tens of thousands of years to a single millennium. So he concocts a grand scheme of setting up this colony of great minds that will rebuild society and disguising it (because he wants to minimize the chances of war-like civilizations preying on it) as a project to compile an encyclopedia of the sum total of all humanity's knowledge. Really? A whole planet just to put together an encyclopedia? All the politicians of the imperial court and all the staff of the galaxy's bureaucracy are supposed to buy that? Let alone allocate the vast amounts of money necessary to set up a government-funded colony of several thousand people with all the latest technology, toys and trinkets? Not likely. My memory of Asimov's Forward the Foundation and the other prequel books written in the late 80's/early 90's is a bit dim, but I seem to recall that Seldon had taken the Emperor into his confidence and obtained his approval for the project. But I also seem to recall that the Emperor was not long on the throne before being assassinated or dying by some illness or accident. Which creates the very real problem of what his successors and ministers would do about the project. To get funding - more importantly, to sustain that funding through the various years-long construction, colonization, and supply-before-self-sufficiency stages, would require that the entire imperial government apparatus know what was going on; everyone would need to know that this was really an ark, not just a big book. And they didn't, because again, this was a secret. So here you have a line-up of new emperors in the next few years, not to mention a horde of politicians and bureaucrats, who think this whole expense (when they bother to give it any consideration at all) is about compiling a book, which, let's face it, a computer could do in a fairly short period of time, and which they'd reasonably expect had already been done at any of a number of universities around the galaxy, or could be done if the order was given. I was a reporter long enough to know that when politicians and bureaucrats don't know what a project is and what it's real goals are, they won't fund it. Hell, even when they do know what's going on, half the time they don't want to fund it either! When the Emperor died, Seldon would have lost his backer. His successor either wouldn't know about the project's true purpose, or wouldn't agree that it had value, and would could very well put the kybosh on it. Worse, the new emperors might not know about it at all, and the Foundation project could get stonewalled by a bureaucrat for red tape reasons, to save money, for political opportunism, or out of simple mean-spiritedness. It's amazing that Seldon's Foundation worked as long as it did, but more amazing still that it actually succeeded in getting the budgetary approval to get its start.

1) The Death Star - from Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
One of the throw-away lines that's never really explained in the original Star Wars movie is why the Emperor decided to finally dissolve the Senate. Oh sure, we know he's a power-mad Sith lord asshole who can't tolerate the idea of anyone else having any real say in how the galaxy will be governed, but he could have told the politicians to go home at any time in the years after he assumed total control. There had to be something real or imagined that provoked him. In recent years, I've started to wonder if it was because the Senate was taking Palpatine to task over cost-overruns on the newly-operational Death Star. Oh sure, there's probably some Star Wars super fanboy out there who knows the everything about everything in Lucas' creation and is able to dig deep into the expanded universe to find the real explanation in the backstory of some minor character like that little hamster guy making gimme-gimme motions for his drink at the bar in the cantina in Mos Eisley to prove he was instrumental in bringing down the Senate by having sex with Palpatine's favourite pet Gungan disguised as the senator from the hammerhead planet or something. But I'm sticking with the budget theory. I think, shortly before Princess Leia was captured, a copy of the final bill for Death Star I was given to the Senate committee overseeing the Imperial Navy's budget. The cost of the station would have been hell to justify in the first place. After all, the civil war was over; the galaxy was at peace. Why, the senators might reasonably ask, would the Emperor need to build a war machine as big as a moon? Couldn't the current fleet of Star Destroyers, with the projected and budgeted-for replacements over the next few years, continue to do an adequate job of keeping the peace? The Death Star may have greater firepower than the fleet, but it isn't anywhere near as maneuverable as the ships, and can't be in as many places at once. In terms of suppressing the growing Rebellion, spending fewer credits adding more ships to the fleet makes more sense. "Ah yes," cackles Palpatine and his admirals, "But the Death Star can destroy an entire planet! That'll show them!" To which the Senators might narrow their eyes (or whatever they sense the environment with) and say "The Rebels, and even the planet's inhabitants, might have it coming, but what about all the valuable resources you're destroying in the process, never mind the tax revenues from those inhabitants - at least while you've got them in your tight grip?" That would have been enough to seriously piss the Emperor off, so the Senators, wanting to live a while longer, would probably have passed the initial Death Star budget. But as the years passed and the thing got closer to completion, costs were sure to soar. Supply lines might have been endangered by Rebel attacks, driving up the cost of materials. Add to that the cost of labour (and I can't comment any better than Kevin Smith did in Clerks), and other assorted incidentals, and costs were probably getting way beyond the initial estimates. When the station went operational and the final bill was presented to the Senate, there was probably an uproar. So much so that Palpatine probably told them to fuck off and go home and then threw one or two of their hover pods around with the Force for good measure. Sure, he rammed the cost through the budget process, but he couldn't do it without serious political opposition and without removing the last vestige of democracy that had probably prevented the Rebellion from further escalation. For that reason, because Palpatine had to push the Death Star funding through so much serious budgetary opposition that it contributed to the eventual downfall of his government, this megaproject tops the list.

So what megaprojects of SF do you think would have faced a tough time getting budget approval?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Review: Paul

Think of Starman. Now, instead of having The Dude from The Big Lebowski having sex with Karen Allen, think of Zack from Zack & Miri Make a Porno in the body of one of Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind xenomorphs hitching a ride with a couple of English nerds and assorted others. Insert an asteroid belt's worth of SF in-jokes and you've mostly got the idea behind Paul. Mostly.

The latest gem from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost tells the tale of a pair of fanboys who've come from the UK on the ultimate geek's pilgrimage: to attend the San Diego Comicon, followed by a roadtrip to see various alleged alien landing sites and conspiracy locations around the American west. One night while driving their winnebago (which continually gave me flashbacks to Lonestar & Barf's ride in Spaceballs - and I'm not sure whether that was intended by Pegg & Frost or not) on a lonesome highway they witness a car crash. When they come to offer help, they're met by a stereotypical big-headed alien named Paul who asks for a ride. Turns out he's not just another extraterrestrial trying to get home, he's also a wisecracking, frequently rude, ganja-rocker who's got a pretty down-to-earth outlook on life. Along the way the boys pick up a trailer park worker and are relentlessly hunted by a trio of federal agents played by Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, and Joe Lo Trugilo (who are themselves hounded by their boss Sigourney Weaver), not to mention an angry dad and the occasional redneck.

And, as mentioned, there are enough science fiction references to satisfy a legion of nerds. Most are pretty obvious, enough so that non-geeks in the audience will get them and laugh, but none-the-less endearing to fanboys and fangirls. Then there are more scattered here and there that are more subtle. No spoilers, but pay attention to the name of one of the restaurants in the first half of the movie, and listen closely to the bluegrass band in the back half. And then there are the ones that will earn you your ultranerd badge if you can pick up on them. Again, no spoilers, but let's say I was the only one in my audience of 300 who laughed at Pegg's homage to Star Trek: Generations. There's no doubt that half the appeal of the movie will be rewatching it on DVD once or twice just to pick up on the allusions that are missed in the first viewing.

Is there anything truly profound about Paul? Does it examine the question of what an extraterrestrial's perceptions of life in general and Earth and American culture in particular would be? Does it probe (heh-heh, "probe") the depths of the human condition and our views on existence? Nope. But it's funny as hell. Paul isn't trying to be a deeply moving drama or existentialist art-house flick. It's a straight-forward roadtrip comedy and it works very well in this capacity. It's also a loveletter to SF (and here I'm borrowing very appropriate wording from the CBC's review) and is genuine and well-crafted in this respect too. And it benefits from a cast of likable characters. Do all of the jokes work? No. Some fall flat. But most are funny enough to elicit a chuckle and a lot are worth a full-on laugh.

For SF fans and non-fans alike, Paul is definitely worth paying full price to see at the theatre.