Saturday, February 27, 2010

Goals for March

Some notes and goals for this next month, arranged by area of brain-space.

1. Finish one short story per week (what does this mean? first draft? finished product? we'll see.)
2. Kester's Monster (working title) - finish final revisions & rename it
3. Ammit & Co (short story cycle I wrote in Korea) - Assess, clean up and continue
4. Brainstorm for more stories. (I have a list already, which I will use and to which I will add).
5. Writing Exercises -
a. Transform weird news feed articles into short story seeds
b. Set aside a day or two now and again for Speed Writing (story, RPG, whatever)
c. Carry small notebook. Write observations.

1. Monday Night Cogs via Skype - Finish up.
2. Occult Research Bureau via Posts - Start. Continue.
3. Other Games in Person (In a Wicked Age, Don't Rest Your Head, etc) - Play.
4. Engel s02 - Work out details

1. Continue looking at post-grad programs
2. Reflection on authors for personal study
3. Continue investigation of Literary Theory for personal study

1. Finish training for ESL job, start teaching.
2. Find another job. Quick.

1. Exercising: running, toning, etc.
2. Eat healthy foods.
3. Avoid unhealthy foods.

1. At least one book a week.
2. Not just speculative fiction.

+Internet and Computer+
1. *Dramatically* cut down time wasted. (Facebook reduction is just a start.)
2. Actually participate in those forums things I read. Do this while still paying attention to the above goal.

1. Spend time with friends.
2. Make some new friends.
3. Be a better correspondent with people not present.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Review: Fiasco by Stanislaw Lem

I recently read Solaris by Polish science fiction master Stanislaw Lem. It, and the two movies that were based on it (directed by Steven Soderberg and Andrei Tarkovsky) are some of the best science fiction I've ever seen (or read). I highly recommend all of them: they are not the watered down Star Wars space opera, but hard sci fi at its very best: a dual commentary on science and religion in light of the limits of human knowledge.

Interested in reading more of Lem, I picked up Fiasco at the Chicago Public Library because it looked interesting. The plot, essentially, is that a star ship is sent from earth to a distant sun, where evidence of civilization has been detected. The mission is to make contact with the alien civilization and to exchange information with it, in a congenial neighborly sort of way.

Unfortunately, things don't go according to plan.

The POV character of the novel is, for the most part, a "dare-devil" pilot who is killed in the first chapter and then brought back from his cryogenic tomb four hundred or so years later. He has amnesia, and eventually takes to calling himself Mark Tempe, since he can't remember his real name.

The ship makes it to the planet, but complications arise. First, the aliens ("Quintans", since the planet is the fifth from its sun) don't seem to want contact nearly as much as the humans do. They've created a wall of radio static around the planet, which makes any attempts at communication difficult. Furthermore, in the area of space surrounding the planet they've established what may be a web of automatic defenses. Of course, since the Earth crew has no idea what the aliens are like, every single enigmatic facet of the solar system is an enigma that must be solved and interpreted, then (when more evidence becomes available) solved again and reinterpreted.

Eventually it becomes clear that there are at least two superpowers on the Quintan planet, who have been in continuous conflict with each other for many centuries. The war has been pushed off planet and into space, where it has also become essentially automated. Competing and intertwining defense grids now keep vigil beyond the atmosphere, while on the ground an uneasy ceasefire is maintained. Further attacks on the Terran ship and rebuffs of its attempts at contact frustrate the crew, who surmise that centuries of war and mistrust have left the two powers paranoid and unwilling to make contact. In their own defense, the crew decides to put on a show of power -- a show which may or may not lead to an interstellar war. I'm not saying.

Overall, I thought Fiasco was very intelligent, as well as being a fun read if you're into science fiction and speculation about contact with alien civilizations. Most of the book is spent attempting to figure out what is going on down on the planet, and what the Quintans are thinking -- as Mark says toward the end of the book, we make a model of the other person, which contains their own model of the situation, which we must answer with another model of a model, and so on ad infinitum. Making my own guesses about how the book would end was part of the whole fun.

The book isn't quite as good as Solaris, however; and part of the problem is that it isn't quite as timeless. Fiasco (as you will probably have guessed from the above synopses) was written during the Cold War. (Published in 1987). It's very much a child of that time, and so those particular themes didn't resonate with me quite so well as they would have back in the day. However, despite this, Lem's continuation of his pessimistic view of the chances of Contact with other races (as seen also in Solaris). I would recommend reading Solaris instead of this if you have to choose or are not otherwise a fan of science fiction, but if you read a lot of science fiction, and don't require the presence of space princesses or space pirates, this is good hard science fiction.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Pop Quiz Time!

Who wrote the following passage?

" a narrow path drawn across a gulf that the human imagination cannot grasp. It is a set of answers to certain questions that we put to the world, and the world supplies the answers on the condition that we will not then ask it other questions, questions shouted out by common sense. And common sense? It is that which is understood by an intelligence using senses no different from those of a baboon. Such an intelligence wishes to know the world in terms that apply to its terrestrial, biological niche. But the world--outside that niche, that incubator of sapient apes--has properties that one cannot take in hand, see, sniff, gnaw, listen to, and in this way appropriate."

Is it...?

a) C. S. Lewis
b) Stanislaw Lem
c) H. P. Lovecraft
d) Michael Crichton

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Friday, August 15, 2008

Oh, it's on!

So, a while back a friend of mine wrote a facebook note about how he, as an atheist, has been discussing the bible with his family, and trying to show them alternate ways of viewing the bible (other than the fundamentalist literal infallible interpretation thing). I wrote a comment saying that I liked his post, and offering the literary objections to the literal interpretation business:

Being a lit major, I come at this question from a completely different angle than you do, I'm sure: when I'm talking to those of the more fundamentalist persuasion, I often mention that I object to a literal interpretation of Genesis (as well as several other books of the bible) not for scientific reasons, but for literary reasons. When we accept that the various books of the bible are not all written as History in the sense that we 21st Century Americans think of it, we can see that Truth doesn't always come to us in the form of historical narrative, or even in the form of non-fiction prose. (The Psalms are a good example of this.)

Often enough, it doesn't matter much to a Christian faith whether or not certain biblical stories were historically accurate in the sense that they actually occurred in reality: whether or not the book of Job is based on actual events, or the book of Esther actually occurred that way, doesn't matter to us nearly so much as what the stories they tell mean; the messages they convey. I would argue that the same is true of Genesis. Rather than being a scientific document or a historical document, it a creation myth; but to me, that makes it no less valuable a work, and no less indicative (to a Christian) of humankind's relationship with God.

Well, time went by, and I almost forgot about the comment; but then yesterday I got an e-mail saying that someone else had posted a comment, and found that it was a response to mine:


If you'll allow me an analysis of your view...

If these stories are just stories, but their true value lies in the lessons we can adduce from them, what would those lessons be? For instance, what useful understanding can we glean from the creation stories in Genesis? What knowledge can we take home from the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son at god's nod or from the command to kill those who break the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2)? It's fine to say they're allegories, but allegories to what? Surely nothing praiseworthy.

The apologist here will likely try to explain why the bible offers such seemingly inaccurate claims historically, morally, and scientifically, but the fact that they must do so, and that they can apparently do so with more clarity than the book itself, should lead somebody to conclude that the book is muddled and unnecessary, given that we have human reason with which to acquire actual understanding.

Additionally, one thing the bible has that other stories, such as Goldilocks or The Illiad do not, is several claims to the books literal and unchanging truth (these claims lead us into very murky waters, with 33% of the world taking the stories as the book instructs - literally). Again, perhaps it's an allegory, but if so, it's an allegory that could be usurped in clarity by virtually any man, woman, or child on this planet (and an allegory, if you're approach is correct, that has only been grasped by a handful of people - making it a very poor allegory indeed). Both god and humanity could easily do better.

It's been a while since I've engaged in an internet debate, but I thought I'd pick this one up and play with it for a bit. Here's my first response:

Thanks for the analysis. I'd be loathe to derail Jonathan's comment section, so we might need to take this elsewhere if it leads anywhere.

I find your frequent use of the word "Allegory" intriguing, because allegory is exactly the genre of literature that can be best deciphered in the sort of rational, logical way that you are talking about. In the symbolism of allegory, there is generally a one-for-one correspondence between the symbols and the things symbolized. In Bunyan, the character of Christian represents your average Christian, while the Slough of Despondency represents...being despondent. It's also exactly the sort of symbolism that myth doesn't do.

This is why I disagree so heartily with your statement that apologists can explain (well, you said the bible, but I was talking about Genesis so as to not step into other genres) with greater clarity than it can itself, and further, that because something is unclear or difficult to read that it is therefore unnecessary. "We have human reason with which to acquire actual understanding," you say. This makes my eyelid twitch. Are not myths (and stories in general) ways that human knowledge and understanding find expression? A prominent fantasy author once wrote an essay entitled "Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's to be Said." Another author once wrote, "[Aspiring authors trained in over-rational interpretation] still do not realize that a symbol is not a sign of something known, but an indicator of something not known and not expressible otherwise than symbolically. They mistake symbol (living meaning) for allegory (dead equivalence)." This is, in fact, why some people write fiction instead of nonfiction in the first place, and why many authors, asked what their works are about, will often say that they want the piece to speak for itself.

Now, it's possible that you're trying to say that given the traditional Christian view of God and his authorship of the books of the bible, it would have been more effective to communicate what he wanted through other means: actual historical and scientific treatises, perhaps, or at least a point-by-point credo and/or list of rules and regulations. Well that would open an entirely different can of worms, and I'd say if we want to continue we should probably find somewheres other than Jonathan's comments to do it. The space limits here are a bit constraining, anyway. If you want, I can send you a friend invitation and we can work something out.

We'll see where it leads.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Review: The X-Files opening titles.

I've started watching the X-Files recently, and am enjoying the first season. This was prompted by hearing about the new movie coming out, and figuring if the movie was good it might make up for what I've heard the last couple seasons were, I decided to go back and start the series.

Well, apparently the new movie isn't all that great; but I'm enjoying the series for now, so I'll keep watching for a while.

However, after four episodes, I can't keep silent about the opening titles.

They are atrocious.

First of all, the music. I'm sure the wavy synth was creepy back in the early nineties, but now it just sounds *cute*. And you don't want people subconsciously associating your paranormal thriller show with *cute*. Then there are the images. The first series of still images with a hazy UFO in the sky -- that's great, that's fine. The second, of some anonymous person drawing...something...okay, that's mysterious at least. Then we have an electro-globe. Not scary or mysterious. Sure, back in the sixties movie mad-scientists always had them in their labs, but nowadays they're about as creepy as a lava lamp. Then comes a twisty head of a guy opening his mouth, ostensibly in anguish, except you just *know* that it's the janitor of the studio where they put together the titles. "This could be my big break!" and all that. Next we have what appears to be a mirror image of a seed sprouting, superimposed by the words "Paranormal Activity." Seeds sprouting are about as paranormal as *wet rain*. Wait, I get it -- maybe the plant itself is paranormal?

In any case, the font they use for the words Paranormal Activity, along with the shadow beneath and the way the words fade into the all screams "Power Point Presentation." And that's it really -- this whole opening sequence is like a bad power-point presentation, and one that doesn't have a coherent structure to it.

Immediately following the paranormal seed, we get a zoom in on Mulder's badge with (in a new font) "Starting David Duchovny". That's all fine, I guess. But the next shot is a person's shadow, and the words "Government denies knowledge". The image isn't even interesting, let alone creepy or mysterious, and the words...well, I mean, I don't get where the words are supposed to be coming from, you know? If they were cut out from a newspaper, that would be something. But these words are just floating there. They're outside the fiction, like "The show, a new genre unto itself, would be called..." Except they seem to fit *in* the fiction. The effect is rather odd.

Then we get Scully's badge, which, fine. Whatever. But then comes the best/worst part of the opening sequence. It's a darkened room. Maybe a warehouse or something. Except, it's all foggy and misty. And there's agents Mulder and Scully; Scully's got a flashlight out, and Mulder's drawn his gun, and they're both looking concerned and intense. And we zoom in on their faces, except we don't just *zoom in* on their faces, we zoom in increments, so the effect is like four still camera shots, each a little closer than the last. Like the first part of the sequence, with the flying saucer. Then, we fade to white. I don't think that my description here can properly convey how cheesy this shot is. But trust me, it's way on over the top. Because they look so darn serious, and the cute widdle warbly music is playing in the background, and the standard screen composition of the shot, and the 90s television film simply cannot help but love this part.

So, then we have a falling white misshapen silhouette, which tumbles into the neon-blue outline of a handprint, er, except that one of the sections of the pointer finger is red instead of blue. Despite looking like a flash animation, this title is actually somewhat intriguing. Is the blue/red hand supposed to be infrared? I'm sad that the white silhouette is falling.

Then, in quick succession, we have an eye blinking and then a stock time-lapse shot of clouds rushing past. These images are at least mysterious; as in, it's a mystery what the people who put this sequence together were *thinking*. Okay, the clouds at least get explained: there's a flash of lightning, and the words "The Truth is Out There" appear on the screen, in the same thin sans-serif font (which is so boring as to be effectively an absence of font) that they used in the titles for Silence of the Lambs (if you don't remember it, that's okay -- I only remember it because I was surprised at how unremarkable it was the first time I saw the film). So, the wide expanse that the clouds are rushing past is supposed to reinforce the idea that the Truth (of which the Government is perhaps denying knowledge, probably about Paranormal Activity of some sort) is "Out There". This doesn't explain the blinking eye -- unless it's Chris Carter's eye, since the "Created by Chris Carter" title appears alongside the blinging eye.

You know what they could have done? Maybe, after the the teaser, they could have had the words "The X-Files" sort of angle their way towards the camera, while this weird sound plays, half growl and half howl. Then cut right to the show, and give us the "Starring" and the "Created by" as titles at the bottom of the screen during the real show.

Or maybe they could have had images of Mulder and Scully wandering around on their journeys, while some Hindu chant plays, and they could overlay (in the same font each time, mind), "Two Federal Agents. Searching for The Truth. On Earth." and then halfway through the titles the music gets all dramatic, and shots from later in the episode are played. Oh, and I forgot! At the beginning it goes, "The conspiracies were created by the government. They keep the aliens secret. There are many layers. And they have a plan!"

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Michael's Guide to Comic Books that I Have Liked, Part One

So, in the interest of proving that there is more to my life than reviewing Dungeons and Dragons (keen-eyed readers will note that *of course* there is more to my life than Dungeons and Dragons: just look how long it took me to read the darn book), I am introducing a periodic series here for the blog. A number of you have recently asked me about graphic novels and comic books; and which ones are good to read and so forth. So, every so often I'll highlight a good comic book that I enjoyed, and tell you a bit about it.

First up is "Understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud. I'm highlighting this first, because if you're going to read comic books it helps to be literate within the context of the medium. And Scott's book can help you with that. He's written a couple more books along this like, "Reinventing Comics" and "Making Comics", but 'Understanding Comics" is the bedrock, and I recommend it highly. It gives you the lowdown on the form and theory of comic books. Check it out.