Thursday, December 27, 2012

Playing Games with Lily: Lego Harry Potter

 I was hanging out with Lily a couple weekends ago and we spent a couple hours looking at the Lego versions of Harry Potter characters in the Brickipedia. If you have a daughter, you've probably done the same thing.

(Brickipedia is a Wiki about Legos. I never even imaged such a thing existed, but I am thrilled that it does. The Internet does occasionally produce something worthwhile.)  

I thought, "Hey, this Lego Harry Potter game looks fun!" so we drove out to the mall and traded in some stuff for a used copy.

It's just about the perfect game for Lily. The only thing I could think to make it better for her would be to add something where she can practice her reading.  But it has cooperative gameplay, puzzles to solve, tons of stuff to unlock and it's impossible to fail (you just explode into bricks if you lose all your health and then immediately respawn minus a little bit of money), which is great when you're playing with a six-year-old.  The cutscenes are cute. It's got a little fighting, but it's not too violent. Just like you, the bad guys just explode into bricks.

The puzzles are mostly pretty easy. When in doubt, zap everything on the screen, and as my friend Frederick observed, if the bricks don't disappear, then you're probably supposed to build something out of them. Occasionally, the trick to a boss fight is not immediately obvious. The basilisk in particular is a pain. The fight involved luring the thing into smashing three sets of walls, brewing a potion that includes components that are obscured by the geometry due to the fixed camera angle, pulling a chain after you drink the strength potion, summoning Fawkes, using the same spell at the same time as your partner on the same item, jumping down into the pipe, using a spell on the Sorting Hat to get the Godric Gryffindor's sword and then finally levitating the sword to stab the basilisk who for some reason was positioned somewhere off screen where I couldn't see him.  I used a walkthrough at Gamefaqs for that one. It was just astoundingly tedious. Unfortunately, Lily reads well enough now to realize what I was reading and she doesn't want to do the puzzles anymore, but would rather consult the walkthrough for a solution.

Lily has come to hate Ron and Dobby for some reason. I can understand the Dobby hate, but Ron? Ron's a cool cat.

No, Crookshanks is a cool cat.

Lily's solution to whenever the game makes her play Ron is to run to a cauldron and brew up some polyjuice potion, which lets you select another character. She usually changes him into Hermione in a ballgown, which suggests to me that Ron has some really particular fetishes.

(I usually turn my character into Lucius Malfoy and run around Avada Kedavraing random Lego people. Whee!)

But yeah, Dobby sucks. A friend asked how I could hate Dobby and I said that the only sock I wanted to give him has a bar of soap inside.

When she's not playing video games, Lily likes to play "Would you rather?" where one person poses a choice between two good things or two bad things and the other person has to choose.

We had this exchange earlier today.

Me: Would you rather...get a bunch of candy, or....push Dobby into a wood chipper?
Lily: Wood chipper.

Ha, ha, ha. Fuck Dobby.

I'm so proud of her.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Culture Clubs and Power Plays

I don't actually like much science fiction. And that may seem strange, considering the nature of this blog, but I really don't.

I enjoy Roger Zelazny's works, clearly, but the fact that he wrote science fiction and fantasy is almost incidental to me now. It's just good writing and that transcends genre to a large degree. (I'll include here the caveat that I first encountered his works when I was a young high-schooler and read sci-fi and and only sci-fi, so I almost certainly would never have discovered him if he had chosen to work in another genre.)

Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crap) applies to science fiction, of course, but it seems that science fiction and arenas closely associated with it (fantasy and role-playing) tend to inspire fans to write stories of their own, which, by and large, are not very good. I worked in a comic book store in the 90s and I was exposed to a lot of that kind of stuff, and left me a bit more critical of SF than I would be otherwise. (I include fantasy under this umbrella, too, so just because I'm a fellow geek, it doesn't mean I want to read your 500 page manuscript where the members of U2 all get jobs teaching at Hogworts.)

So, I don't like most sci-fi. And yet, I'm listening to two series on my phone. I initially joined Audible because they were the only place I could find Lord of Light as an audio book. That was really all I wanted (and I didn't like their proprietary format anyway), so I canceled and left the account fallow for a few years until I rejoined a couple months ago. I worked my way through Sarah Vowell's libary, listened to Lord of Light a couple times, endured Bossypants and then downloaded a Culture book because I had heard good things about the series. After I worked my way through the Culture books they had available, I downloaded Shada, a Doctor Who story, which I reviewed here.

To sum up, I don't like a lot of sci-fi, but I enjoy both Doctor Who and the Culture and they couldn't be more different.

Of course, I'm persnickety about what I like about Doctor Who. I like the Doctor better as someone who is exceptional because of what he does, rather than who he is. I like a Doctor who isn't godlike, who isn't facing ever-escalating threats to time and space, but as a wanderer who knows it's impossible for one man to right all the wrongs in the universe, so he doesn't even try, but rather fights these threats where he finds them and inspires people to become their own champions.  The Fourth Doctor did this the best. I watched City of Death on Friday, and while I kept expecting Scaroth to turn into King Richard or get in his AT-AT (that joke is hilarious to the three people who get it), I just noticed a joy and a spontaneity to the production that I find lacking in the new series. Doctor Who is really, pretty absurd, and it seems like the latter day Doctors aren't in on the joke.

I've run the following point in to the ground here, but I'll repeat it again. Sometimes David beats Goliath. But not always. If David is running circles around Goliath every week for seven years, I think it's time to stop pretending he's really David.

Also, if your master plan ten thousand years in the making is so brittle that it can scuttled by some eleventh hour machinations by a chain-smoking Sting wannabe, well, maybe you deserve to lose.

City of Death, incidentally, doesn't suffer from this problem. The Doctor is on holiday and happens across an alien named Scaroth. Scaroth's actions would destroy humanity (or more specifically, prevent us from being created in the first place), but that's not really his goal; it's just something incidental to what he really wants to achieve. He's punching below his weight class on 1970s Earth, but so is the Doctor, and the story works for me, because the villain didn't have this crazy master plan. He had a plan that was predicated being the only one with his advanced technology and while it was good enough to do what he wanted it to do, it didn't have a lot of wiggle room built in, so I can buy the idea that a problem from completely outside his context would cause him to stumble. Scaroth's plan was really only feasible because the Doctor and Romana showed up, so it does only seem fair that they could trip it up too.

I like Law & Order, because there really aren't that many shows like it. It's not a show about the last minute Deus Ex Machina (I liked Russell T. Davies, but man, three years in a row of Apocalypse >  Deus Ex Machina > Cosmic Reset button was at least two years too many), but one of the diligent application of proven techniques. The Culture strikes me the same way.  Not that there aren't clever gambits in the series, (my favorite was the doomed drone that used its final action to burn a coded message into the hull of the enemy ship that destroyed it) but they aren't pulled from nowhere or reliant on their enemies being completely oblivious. The Culture tends to win its battles because it has a vast and flexible infrastructure and is shrewd and ruthless in its employment.

And I'll go into the Culture in a little more detail here, since fewer people will probably be familiar with it. I usually describe it as Star Trek's Federation, taken to its logical conclusion. All the write-ups describe it as a post-scarcity society. Unlimited matter replication has seen to that. It's a Utopia. And yet, there's this understated horror of scale to it. The civilization is just so big and the backbone of the Culture is its society of Minds (Marvin Minksy shout out!). The Culture built computers which were smarter than any human, which designed the next generation of computers, and this was repeated until they got to the Minds, AIs with most of their components housed in hyperspace so their processes are not limited to the speed of light. They're benevolent, but so many orders of magnitude smarter and faster than any human that again that subtle horror of scale creeps in.

The Culture is more in line with my sensibilities. Here is a passage from Excession, my favorite Culture novel.

...the attack had been too sudden, too extreme, too capable. The plans the ship had made, of which it was an important part, could only anticipate so much, could only allow for so proportionally greater a technical capability on the part of the attacker. Beyond a certain point, there was simply nothing you could do; there was no brilliant plan you could draw up or some cunning stratagem you could employ that would not seem laughably simple and and unsophisticated to a profoundly more developed enemy.

And while we're on the subject of things outside of one's context, here's another offering from the Culture, from Wikipedia's entry on Excession.

This is a problem that is "outside the context" as it is generally not considered until it occurs, and the capacity to actually conceive of or consider the OCP in the first place may not be possible or very limited (i.e., the majority of the group's population may not have the knowledge or ability to realize that the OCP can arise, or assume it is extremely unlikely). An example of OCP is an event in which a civilization does not consider the possibility that a much more technologically advanced society can exist, and then encounters one. The term is coined by Banks for the purpose of this novel, and described as follows:

The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you'd tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbors were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass... when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you've just been discovered, you're all subjects of the Emperor now, he's keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.

There is, incidentally, a Doctor Who/Culture Crossover of sorts, in the novel The Also People. I haven't read it yet, but even now it is speeding towards me. I've avoided reading a summary of it, because I like being surprised, but it is a Doctor Who book, (specifically a Seventh Doctor book, set in the time when he was the child of Xanatos and Machiavelli) so I imagine he'll be dismantling the Culture-analogues in the story. Perhaps I'm wrong. If I love it, I'll blog about it here. If I hate it, I'll blog about here, too.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Song of the Blue Baboon

A couple weeks ago, I reviewed King Solomon's Ring, which tends to be ranked as one of Zelazny's worst stories. That post got a couple comments:

Chris D: Dude, this isn't a great story, but it's way better than "Song of the Blue Baboon."

Me: I had to go reread Blue Baboon to refresh myself because I can never remember what that one's about. And having done so, it didn't struck me as "bad" as much as it did kind of pointless without the image that inspired it.

Zach: I seem to recall "Blue Baboon" being in the same boat as _To Die in Italbar_: Zelazny himself was unhappy with both stories, but when I read them, I didn't think they were bad.

Mind you, I can't really remember what "Blue Baboon" was about, but I distinctly recall going in with low expectations and then wondering what all the fuss was about once I was done.

Song of the Blue Baboon
(I always want to call it "Ballad of the Blue Baboon", for that added alliterative appeal) is a bit of an oddity.

Have you ever played Taboo? As part of the game, you get some cards with a word or a phrase on top of it, and five words/phrases below it. You're trying to get your partner to guess the top word without mentioning it or any of the taboo words.

If there were a Taboo card for Song of the Blue Baboon,  "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" would be the first forbidden word, because this story pretty much is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge".

And that's fine. I happened to like "Nine Starships Waiting" (even if nobody else did) and Zelazny was pretty frank in admitting that it was just a sci-fi retelling of the Revenger's Tragedy.

So, nothing wrong with that, in itself.

In the future, Earth has been occupied by blue aliens. Was our hero really a quisling, helping the blue baboon-like aliens? Or was he an undercover resistance agent, working to undermine them?

The one thing we know is that he's dying, and the medication he's been given will stretch out the perception of his final moments, and the sights he imagines in his final moments will reveal his true loyalties.

These visuals are drawn from the cover illustration that was supposed to accompany the story.

In Angel, Dark Angel, Zelazny talked about how the cover illustration inspired the story. Baboon is the same deal, only moreso. I would go so far as to say that the illustration is a vital component of the story.

Unfortunately, there was a mixup and the story was not published in the magazine with the cover that inspired it.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that tying the story so closely to a particular image was probably a mistake, because it just doesn't have much impact without it. The word I used initially was "pointless" and that seems apt. Zelazny described the image as the "scaffolding" for the story, and I think that fits even better.

As of this writing, I haven't actually seen the picture that goes along with the story. I assume it's in the Ides of Octember somewhere, but actually opening the book is more effort than I'm willing to put out for a review of Blue Baboon.

Ultimately, while I don't think the story "works", I can't bring myself to hate it. Zelazny was an experimental writer and he took a lot of risks with his writing. Sometimes they worked, such as Creatures of Light and Darkness and Doorways in the Sand. Other times they didn't, but I don't begrudge him the fruits of a failed experiment. Not everything is going to pan out. I'd certainly rather read the occasional failure than the works of an author who never took any chances. I think that Blue Baboon is a failure, but an instructive one.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Little Brother

It's funny seeing the genesis of things. That's part of the reason I keep the blog. So I can look back and see the first time we did something that later become part of our life.

As you know, I often claim to be an only child who raised by wolves, a claim that annoys my parents, but amuses my siblings. Lily really is an only child. One of my first posts here was on that topic.

She's often hard to wake up in the morning, so Jen and I have to be creative. I was feeling silly the other morning, so I decided to pretend to be a little brother.

And she loved it!

She's wanted to play it every single moment since that morning. Lily loves being the mother hen. She is the only child so she's often kind of bossy. (A little neighbor boy, fed up with being bossed around during a visit, snapped at her with "You're not my mommy, Lily!")

The Little Brother game is interesting for me, because it's a way to get her to explain things in her own words without asking to.  She's been enrolled in the kindergarten's enrichment class and we're trying to get her bumped up a grade. She scored a 100% on a first grade quarterly assessment,  which I find particularly impressive as she hasn't experienced the curriculum for that material,  but the school is still balking about it. They say that she can't articulate how she gets her answers to their satisfaction.

This smacks of a fig leaf to support a decision they've already made. (I wasn't able to attend the meeting, but if I had been there, I would have asked, "And what steps are you taking to fix this?"*)  It's very frustrating. Lily likes explaining things and she's good at it. But if she wants to play little brother and that's fine with me. As they say, "You don't really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother."

Or, in this case, your make believe little brother.

So, I ask her to explain things and she does so in a way she wouldn't for me. She told me a secret about mommy ("She has a tatoo on her back") and she told me a secret about daddy, ("He has an acid burn on his arm" (I do and it's totally cool. Chicks love scars.))

* Actually, I'm terrible on my feet, so I probably wouldn't have thought to think to ask it until well after I left. L'esprit d'escalier.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Movie Review: Arthur Christmas

Every so often, everyone in England decides to get together to make a movie.

In 2003, it was Love Actually.

In early 2011, it was Gnomeo and Juliet.

And in late 2011, it was Arthur Christmas.

I started a post about Gnomeo and Juliet in April, then shelved it a couple days later. The movie was fine, but so astoundingly bland and inoffensive that I just couldn't think of anything to say.

Arthur Christmas, also starring James McAvoy (Jesus, he's in everything) is cut from much the same cloth. Bill Nighy also stars. Did I say James McAvoy was in everything? Nighy makes him look like a recluse.

Those last two paragraphs? I wrote them three weeks ago. I feel that I should write something about this movie, but having seen it, it's left me with nothing to say. It's no more substantial than cotton candy.

That shouldn't be the case. It REALLY seems to want to to say something. Damned if I know what it is, though. It's just bland, tepid, and raises the kind of points idiots think are thought-provoking. Gnomeo & Juliet suffered from the same problems, though to a lesser extent. It wants to be edgy and clever, but stops just short of being so.

I think that's my real problem with the movie. I can enjoy treacle. I watch My Little Pony with my daughter. I can enjoy the darkest, most subversive movie out there.

Arthur Christmas is the worst of both worlds.  It wants the cred for being clever and edgy, but never works for it. It tiptoes right up to the line but never takes any real risks.

I was watching some old Muppets with Lily. We watched the one Christmas special, not the Muppet Christmas Carol, which rules, but the earlier one, where a bunch of Henson Studio characters like the Fraggles and the Sesame Street Muppets get together on Christmas. There was a subplot where another Muppet wants to hook up with Camilla, Gonzo's chicken and get down with some "scratchin' and squawkin'", and another where the Swedish Chef wanted to kill and eat Big Bird. The Muppet Show had heart, but it also had bite. It's quietly subversive in a way that Arthur Christmas is not, and never has the guts to be.

You know, I think that's the moral of the movie. Arthur Christmas is the lovable fuckup son of Santa Claus. His brother Steve has modernized the operation, but...well, I'm not sure what the problem is with Steve. Apparently it's that he's modernized the operation and we're supposed to hate him.

Anyway, one toy fails to get delivered, and there is a madcap scramble to deliver it. Everybody is kind of a dick but Arthur and he winds up as the new Santa because he's the most inoffensive character around. Not because he's qualified, but because he's the least disliked of all the characters.

And that's how I feel about the movie. It takes care not to offend anyone by being  too provocative, which ensures that it can advertise on Webkinz, which is where we saw, but also makes certain it will never rise above the level of a movie that advertises on Webkinz.

It reminds me of a line from the Last Unicorn: Offering no true magic, he drew no magic back from them...

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Book Review: Shada

At the beginning of the month, I was shopping around for something on which to spend my monthly Audible credit, when my friend Jen suggested a Dr. Who book. So I looked in that section and Shada was their featured selection. Okay, that's kind of cool. I knew it was a Douglas Adams story, and I was always fond of both his Doctor Who and Hitchhiker's stuff.  Also, it was read by LALLA WARD.

Yes, this Lalla Ward

John Leeson voices K-9 in the story.

By staggering coincidence, the picture I use for K-9 also has Lalla Ward.

For me, celebrities as narrators for audio books are not necessarily a good thing. It's often no more than a gimmick. John Hodgman does a great job, but Tina Fey, to take a very surprising example, read her own words as if she were unfamiliar with them.

But I couldn't pass up Romana, the very best of the old school companions.

Sorry, Sarah Jane.

Shada is a bit of an odd duck. You probably know at least some of the story behind it if you're reading this post, but in the unlikely event that you're someone who reads everything I write simply because I write it and has never heard of Shada, here goes.

It was supposed to be the final episode for Season 17 of Doctor Who. (Season 17 was the one with City of Death, which I personally think was the finest serial of the original series) But there was a strike, and various other complications and filming was only partially completed. Some of the footage was cannibalized for Five Doctors and used to explain why the Fourth wasn't there. I had the vague awareness that there was some of version of Shada with Paul McGann, the 8th/US Telemovie Doctor, but it's not like I was going to go out of my way to seek that out.

I had read that Douglas Adams was unhappy with the script for Shada. I don't know how true this is, but the story I've heard is that he couldn't get permission to write the story he wanted, he kept pushing for it and finally, as they were running out of time, he dashed it out in four days.

I liked the novelization quite a bit. Gareth Roberts completed it and he has a pretty impressive Doctor Who pedigree himself. He wrote Doctor Who novels during the long period between Classic and New Who and also wrote or co-wrote a couple episodes of the new series.

Thought Roberts says he didn't deliberately set out to emulate Adams' writing style, if I didn't know better I would have thought that the prose was Adams' own. It has that jauntiness and turn of phrase peculiar to his style. (Or perhaps I'm just associating Adams with absurdist British sci-fi, since I know his work best, and Roberts is simply drawing on the same inspirations that moved Adams.)

Shada is such a Fourth Doctor story. Had there been time to polish the script and film it properly, I think it could have come to rival anything of that era. The Doctor and Romana are visiting Cambridge in the late 70s when they receive a distress call from an old friend of the Doctor's, Professor Chronotis.

The 1979 setting would have been contemporary had the story aired as intended, and now it kind of makes it a bit of a period piece. That's an aspect I really like about it. I don't think it would have had quite the same charm if we had gotten a Fourth Doctor story set in 2012. (It also enables neat tricks, like a character discovering a Bonnie Tyler Greatest Hits cassette the Doctor brought back from the 1990s)

My friend Jen and I are both old school Doctor Who fans from back in the day. (She's got this weird thing for Patrick Troughton, but that's not important right now. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that no conversation about Patrick Troughton is ever important. Hi, Jen! ) My friend Tim is only familiar with the new series, though we've talked about the old one to him and he's watched City of Death.

It's hard to recommend the old series after watching the new one. It had energy and charm and it seemed like anything could happen, but it also featured endless sequences of running down corridors, dodgy special effects, wooden acting and some serials were padded beyond belief. By the time you get to the good parts, it's sometimes hard to appreciate them, because you've been so numbed by the bad ones.

Gareth Robert's interpretation of Shada strikes me as an old school Who story told with the techniques of the new series. The best of both worlds.

At one point in the story Romana mentions other renegade Time Lords, Drax, The Master and the Rani, Morbius, The Corsair  and The Meddling Monk and the The Interfering Nun.  That list is awesome for several reasons. The first is that it references renegades they've recently encountered, like Morbius. The second is that it draws on material that has been written since the story was originally written, such as the characters of the Rani and the Corsair.  It's a small detail, but it makes it seem like those characters existed all along and didn't spring into existence ex nihilo the first time they were encountered on screen. The third is the Interfering Nun. That rules!  That's an Adams-esque character if I've ever heard one! It also emphasizes what I like about the old show. Moffat is on record as seeing the Doctor as someone without peer, but I think he's at his best when he has old friends and rivals of his caliber to play off of.

ha ha ha, Fuck Matt Smith

I also like the slow reveal of the plot. The pacing was very good. The audio book is over eleven hours long, and I looked at the time left, thinking I had only an hour or two remaining, but it turned out that were EIGHT hours left!  It reminds me of George Martin's early Ice & Fire books. They were long, but something happened every chapter. Same deal here.

To digress for a moment, I like the new television series okay. (It's seven years old now, so I guess it's no longer all that "new".) The direction in which they took it, with the Doctor as the last of the Time Lords, is not what I would have done, because I think it closes off the avenue to my favorite kind of stories. I like the Doctor, the fourth Doctor in particular, as a C-student made good, a member of an almost mystical society who couldn't reach his potential until he left it. He's tremendously smart and has loads of experiences, but he's not absolutely the most brilliant mind in all creation, which seemed to be increasingly the case in the new series as it progressed. 

I like the Fourth Doctor who makes stupid mistakes, who gets captured, who has to come up with plans on the spur of the moment that sometimes work and sometimes don't.

As I said, I listened to the audio version and I bookmarked certain segments that I especially liked.

At 4:42: When the annoying human says of his fellow human "...earthlings, I suppose you call us." Romana answers "Among other things." 
At 5:18: "A talking spaceship? Skagra must be pretty hard up for friends," the Doctor muttered, conveniently choosing to forget K-9.

At 7:20:  Dude rescued by the Doctor: "You're a good man" The Doctor: "No I'm not. I'm flippant, boastful and terribly disorganized!"

At 7:32: There was a whole long bit with the computer on the villain's ship. It was programmed to believe him infallible. The orders were given to destroy the Doctor. The Doctor survived, but managed to convince the ship that he must have been killed, since Skagra is infallible.  Later on, the self destruct is disarmed and the Doctor convinces the ship that it has been destroyed. It's silly, ridiculous spurious logic that would annoy me to no end if it had been coming from anyone but the Fourth Doctor. (Ward also does a great job with the voice of the ship.)

I don't like the Doctor as the smartest guy in the whole universe, but I am cool with him talking a ship based on Time Lord technology through the reconfiguration of its own circuitry in order to increase its performance so they can make it to their destination on time.

Later on, the ship suspects it might not really be dead:  "I've combed my databanks for legends of the afterlife..and I can't find a single one where things carry on after death rather suspiciously as they did before." "Don't you talk to me about life and death! Don't you realize this is a matter of life and death?!"

This leads in to the amusing exchange at 7:54: Romana: "You're alive!" The Doctor coughed " Well, there's been a certain amount of debate on that topic of late, but generally speaking, I think I'd agree with that statement."

8:23: Lalla Ward's reading of "Well, DUH!!" has to be hard to be believed.

It's tons of fun. It reminds what I loved about the old show.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Roger Zelazny Book Review: No Award

I like trivia. It is by definition, trivial, and knowing a lot of it is not to be mistaken for intelligence, but I like learning random facts, because chasing them down the rabbit hole and learning if they are true, and how the circumstances that conspired to make them so is often an interesting trip.

Last month I send my best friend an email that said "Did you know one of the blue dudes in Akira was supposed to have polio?" (He replied with "I love it when you say the most incredibly nerdy things to me.")

The thing I liked about Zelazny is that he seemed to have the same enthusiasm, but in his case, he went further, and on reading something interesting, he seemed to say, "Hey, I could write a story about this!"

(Or perhaps I'm projecting here, though a number of the remembrances in the COLLECTED STORIES speak of his boundless curiosity, so I don't think it's a huge stretch, and if is, it's a positive enough trait that I hope I'm not disparaging his memory with this line of speculation)

No Award strikes me that it could have come about in such a way. It's the story of a Manchurian Candidate by way of a corpus callosotomy.

Our narrator enters the hall where the president will be giving a speech.

I glanced at my watch. Still some time. Some other people were smoking. Seemed like a good idea. As I reached for my cigarettes I remembered that I had quit, then discovered that I still carried them. No matter. Take one. Light it- (Trouble. Use the other hand.) I felt some- what tense. Not certain why. Inhale. Better. Good.

The thing that dates this story is not the smoking, but just how small the venue seems. Modern campaign rallies are attended by tens of thousands of people, and the impression I get here is that there are a couple dozen people. It takes place in a "hall" as opposed to a stadium.

Anyways, our narrator, Mister Mathews had been kidnapped, brain-surgeried and brainwashed into becoming the perfect assassin to elude the president's telepathic security.

It's kind of a silly idea for a story (that is one Rube Goldberg assassination attempt) but I admire the effort Zelazny puts into making it seem at least plausible, with the second half of the story being concerned with explaining how the first half could have come about.

All right. I feel like—myself—at any rate. Why did they do this to me?"

"To turn you into the perfect modem assassin," Arthur said. "Half of the brain can be put to sleep while the other hemisphere remains awake. This is done simply by administering a drug via the carotid artery on the appropriate side. After the surgery had been performed,  you—the left hemisphere—were put to sleep while the right hemisphere was subjected to hypnosis and behavior modification techniques, was turned into a conditioned assassin—"

"I had always thought a person could not be hypnotized into doing certain things."

He nodded.

"Normally, that seems to be the case. However, it appears that, by itself, the emotional, less rational right hemisphere is more susceptible to suggestion—and it was not a simple kill order which it received, it was a cleverly constructed and well-rehearsed illusion to which it was trained to respond."

"Okay," I said. "Buying all that, how did they make what happened happen?"

"The mechanics of it? Well, the conditioning, as I said, was done while you were unconscious and, hence, unaware of it. The conditioned hemisphere was then placed in a state of deep sleep, with the suggestion that it would awaken and perform its little act on receipt of the appropriate cue. Your hemisphere was then impressed with a post-hypnotic suggestion to provide that cue, in the form of the phrase you spoke, at a particular time when the speech would be going on. So they left you out in front and you walked into the hall consciously aware of none of this. Your mind was perfectly innocent under any telepathic scrutiny."

Most reviews of Zelazny's work focus on the poetic imagery or the fantastic concepts in his work, but something that seems less appreciated is how meticulously he explored the ramifications of his "What If?" stories.

I can't imagine anyone saying "No Award is my favorite story!" (or even "No Award is my favorite story by Roger Zelazny!" but it's fun and quick.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Tenzin never goes down like a chump

Lily has recently gotten into the Harry Potter movies and when we were watching the Prisoner of Azkaban, she asked, "Who's your favorite teacher?"

And I was like, "Duh, Snape," but she didn't like that answer, so I went with my runner-up, Professor  McGonagall.

I've always had a soft spot for the "reasonable authority figure" and I've always liked McGonagall much more than Dumbledore. She's strict, but treats all of her charges equally in a way that Dumbledore doesn't. I lost any kind of respect for the character at the end of the Order of the Phoenix, where Harry runs headlong into an obvious trap, after being warned it was a trap, and Sirius is killed in the rescue attempt. And Dumbledore absolves him of all guilt, ("It is my fault Sirius died...the blame lies with me and me alone." (The argument can be made that Dumbledore said this as part of his effort to manipulate Harry, but I don't think that's the case.)) That's not something that McGonagall would do.

Also, it doesn't hurt that she's played by Dame Maggie Smith, who radiates awesome into the infrared wavelengths.

I was up at a party a couple years ago with my friend Tim. I didn't know anyone, so I spent the first hour smiling awkwardly while they all told stories about people I didn't know. But Tim's a cool cat with a bunch of awesome friends and I got talking to a girl who used to work with him.  Anyways, she said that Timmy turned her on to some bands she likes, and that's the case with me too. I mentioned that I had seen Juno recently and that the soundtrack was like a Josh mix tape. She casually replies, "Oh, my cousin's in that." and I said, "Oh, really? Which part?" and she said "He's the dad." and I was like "J.K. Simmons?" and she like yeah. So we talked about him for a while. He's one of my favorite actors, so that's cool.

The Legend of Korra has a ton of wonderful characters, and J.K. Simmons voices my favorite, Aang's son Tenzin. Shockingly, he's not on tvtrope's list of reasonable authority figures, but as it's user editable, I think someone should rectify that soon. He is named, I believe, after the current Dali Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, who also gives his name to Monk Gyatso in the original series.

Tenzin has the same traits I love in McGonagall. He's quietly competent, stern, but loving. And like McGonagall, he's a stone cold badass when push comes to shove.

He acquits himself better than the Avatar herself in the final episodes. Chi-blockers ran all over Korra for most of the series, but Tenzin first fights off an ambush, defeating his attackers even after they bind both of his arms.

Then, he makes his way to police headquarters, where he keeps those present safe within a sphere of clean air after the Equalists launch a gas attack,

and then he fights off more of the mecha tanks before finally being overwhelmed.

That last fight has two of my favorite Tenzin moments too. The first is when the mech fires a grapple arm and Tenzin deflects it with a quick blast of air, and the clang! sound effect is perfectly matched to the action.

 The other is when they finally get him and even as he's falling, he airbends a cushion of air to lessen the force of his impact .

I also like him because he loves his family. He's just a good dad.  There's a bit of an interesting backstory too. He used to date Lin Beifong, the chief of police and the daughter of Toph, from the original series. They were already growing apart when Pema, Tenzin's future wife approached him and told him how she felt towards him. ("Pema didn't steal me, Lin and I had been growing apart for some time. We both had... different goals in life- Why am I even telling you this?! It all happened a long time ago and we've moved past it. )It's a really interesting dynamic, and one you rarely see on TV, much less kid's TV.

And while we're on the subject, of characters I love, there's Asami Sato. She's the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. Her mother had been killed by a bender several years ago, which drove her father into the arms of the Equalists, but she never let her grief poison her. She was dating Mako, but he fell for Korra, and even in light of this revelation, when things are at their worst, she screws her courage to the sticking place, puts her personal issues aside and pitches in to help any way she can.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Book Review: Bossypants

I recently reactivated my Audible membership.  I've mentioned before how I enjoy audio books and since I have time to listen to them at work, I've mostly burned through my meager collection already. So I re-enrolled to see what I could get. For my first month, I picked up Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes. She reads her own works and I love her voice. I think I like Assassination Vacation and Partly Cloudy Patriot a bit more, but it was an engaging book about a subject about which I knew nothing. (The history of the encroachment of American civilization in to Hawaii and the consequent fall of the Hawaiian monarchy, up to its transformation into an American territory.)

Something Audible recommended was Tina Fey's Bossypants, and I thought that looked neat, so I bought it with my credit and started listening. I like Tina Fey's work a lot. She's a funny writer and a great performer with excellent comic timing. I still think that's true. However, after completing the book, I like her a lot less as a person.

Joe Matt writes a semi autobiographical comic book. Another artist who became his friend after reading the comic said that at first when reading the comic, he figured that Joe was exaggerating his foibles for comic effect. After they started hanging out for a while, he now thinks, if anything, Joe is being too kind to himself.

And while watching Tina Fey on 30 Rock, I understood that she was not in fact Liz Lemon, and but as she was playing a woman in a position very similar to one she once held, that she was drawing on her real world traits and experiences, but exaggerating them.


Do you see where this is going?

As said above, I like listening to Sarah Vowell, and also David Sedaris. (What can I say? I have a soft spot for public radio personalities with funny voices.) They have a certain quality to their writings. Self-deprecating isn't quite the right word, and neither is humble. I think it's the awareness that all people are fundamentally ridiculous and they are no exception. Tina Fey's writing doesn't have that quality. At several points, she uses her book to take pot shots at people who were mean to her. She saw this guy Tom something on Cable TV and she can't remember his name, but she can remember in perfect detail everything he said? Seems legit.

Gosh, Oprah Winfrey tells her that she looks tired?

Also, there's persistent undercurrent of nastiness to the whole thing. We get a lengthy chapter on her dad, who's totally not racist you guys. We get an account of how she undermines a woman whom she works with in order to get a better job.

Wikipedia says she was nominated for a Grammy for the audio version of the book, but I can't see how. Despite liking her less as a person, I do think she's a great comedy writer and a great performer. But the reading of the book is not good. She seems unfamiliar with her own writing and her reading results in a very uneven delivery. Also, they cut her off too soon. At the end of certain sentences, they end as soon as she she finishes speaking, often clipping off the very end of a word. It doesn't ruin the book, but it makes it seem like a very amateurish production. If I had to guess, they probably did it under tight time constraints.

There are some very, very funny parts in it. The Mother's Prayer For Its Daughter was insightful and deeply funny. The Introduction was nice too, though the memoir segments were boring. I really liked it when she talked about improv, though. It's the only time in the book where she seems to show  genuine enthusiasm for her subject, but she clearly has a passion for it, and I always enjoy it when people share what they love.

She's touted as a latter day Gloria Steinem but when her advice on How to get ahead in Show Business as a Woman amounts to Step 1: Find a powerful man to mentor you. Step 2: Profit!  then I think her reputation has been exaggerated.

I'm afraid she's going to turn out to be a latter day Dennis Miller, because, though she's been elevated to the status of a progressive icon, her positions seem poorly articulated and brittle, and it feels like they're ready to shatter at any moment.