Friday, May 28, 2010

Scientists in the News

The highly unfortunate circumstances in the Gulf of Mexico have resulted in lots of scientists being interviewed in the news.

side note - the above statement is quite an understatement and as someone who was not only born in south Louisiana but who also loves the beautiful environment and lovely people my heart goes out to everyone affected by the spill. Sometimes the price of modern technology and convenience is very high indeed.

And I just love listening to scientists being interviewed. You see, scientists are people very focused on the accurate representation of facts using appropriate words to convey a meaning. How this often plays out in the news is that you have an interviewer asking what is usually a loaded or slightly inflammatory question, then the scientist has to re-word the question before she's even willing to answer it. It totally cracks me up. A scientist just can't deal with questions that already imply an answer or misspeak the current situation. Good interviewers realize this right away and adjust but the bad ones just go on looking bad.

It's sort of sad that this happens at all as I would think journalists would also be "very focused on the accurate representation of facts using appropriate words to convey a meaning" but that just doesn't seem to be the case nowadays. *sigh*

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

More Fun With Duets

The other day I saw the trailer for a movie that is adapted from an author that makes the bile rise in my throat just thinking of the inevitable trite. Ugh! I was quickly filing it into the back of my brain for immediate disposal but then I heard one of my absolute favorite duets EVER playing! Ack! This wonderful song is so under the radar and that's how it's getting some play time? *sigh*

Anyway, as consolation here's another duet I like:

Monday, May 24, 2010

Stalking the Angel by Robert Crais

Title: Stalking the Angel
Author: Robert Crais
Publisher: Bantam (1989)

Well, it's official. I've hit the end of Crais's Cole/Pike backlist. On the one hand, it's always depressing when you get caught up on a new author and then have to wait around for the next installment (though it does help you feel closer to the author's long-time fans:), but then sometimes you get lucky and the last one you read ends up being one of your favorites so you feel like you went out on a high note. And that's the case for me with Stalking the Angel. I really liked it - despite the fact that I suspect Starkey was its previous owner. There's a distinctive odor wafting from the binding... Anyway...

Elvis Cole, World's Greatest Detective (payment optional), is hired by a real jizzwad named Bradley Warren. Warren was in possession of a rare Japanese book that was stolen from his property. He'd like Cole to find it. Well, actually, he'd probably like to tell Cole to go to hell but his assistant, Jillian Becker, convinces him to hire Cole. Cole begins his search by looking for the type of people that might be potential buyers for this type of loot. The situation becomes complicated when the Warrens, who it turns out are a pack of loonies, receive some threatening phone calls. Joe Pike, I'd as Soon Kill Ya as Look at Ya, is called in to assist on the protection front. Cue action!

My main beef with the book is a flaw I feel most of the early books in the series exhibit: Cole is tough and not to be bullied and the reader Shall Know and Understand This RIGHT FUCKING NOW! Cole is a great character and he's easy to figure out. The action makes the above description nearly impossible to miss so why must I be absolutely bombarded with this info in the first few pages? I'd prefer for these traits to make themselves known over the course of the investigation rather than be beaten over the head with them. My other tidbit of annoyance is the uncreative parents. Daddy Warren is an ambitious asshole who ignores his family, Mommy Warren feels neglected and useless and so acts like a non-neutered puppy anytime new man meat comes into her life. They work within the story but aren't exactly original in their construct.

What I really love about this book is the misperceptions and wrong impressions. I'm not suspicious by nature and I'm downright gullible in fiction. I'm happy to buy right into whatever the protagonist is thinking or doing (provided it's not stupid, I might be happily naive in fiction but I'm usually annoyed by idiocy) and I'll view the the story and characters through that lens. Due to this, if the protag(s) misunderstands something I usually do as well. In Stalking the Angel Cole's understanding of the players involved changes constantly. The best part is that there isn't complete resolution either. When the book is over the truth about everyone's motives isn't laid out. It's left to the reader to decide what was really going on. I like that a lot. My favorite books are the ones I want to re-read immediately so as to determine just what the characters might have been thinking through the book and how that led to the conclusion. Basically, I like an author that gives me some work to do. A story is more fun if my interpretation is required.

I thought the book was pretty dark in tone. You get your Cole jokes and whatnot but, for the most part, a lot of dark themes are explored and that's probably why the resolution is so ambiguous. Unlike the later books in the series the reflection on said themes is external. As in, Cole's not thinking about his own dark tendencies but observing the psychoses of those around him. Cole is deeply empathetic so he's a good character to use for exploring general human actions and motives.

As an aside to the main action Becker's character brings up a really interesting issue. As a boss, Mr. Warren appears to be pretty admirable. Arrogant and demanding, yes, but ostensibly fair. Becker has a high regard for his even-handedness in business matters. The events of the book bring her into the more personal side of Mr. Warren's life and she struggles to reconcile the two personas. This I like. It's an issue I think many people can relate to. I've often met someone in a certain capacity and because of that experience developed an impression and respect for them. Then, for whatever reason, there's a shift and I begin to know this same person in a different capacity and I'm horrified at who they now seem to be. Very interesting stuff and I thought it appropriate that the theme came up in a book rife with confusing first impressions.

So now here I am saying bye, bye to a thoroughly enjoyable backlist and already waiting anxiously for the next installment. If you haven't read this Cole novel yet I think it's a great one to put on the TBR pile! I'm just off to put my copy back by the open window and hope the ciggy smell eventually departs...

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Monday, May 17, 2010

Gates of Fire by Stephen Pressfield

Gates of Fire recounts the famous Battle of Thermopylae. Thermopylae was the only access point to Greece for the invading Persian army in 480BC. Its geographic location was key: it was a bottleneck for the invading army with a sheer mountain on one side and a cliff on the other. The vastly outnumbered Greek army was led by 300 Spartans and it was their skillful fighting that held the Persians at bay while the Greek army fell back, regrouped and eventually defended their homeland.

The book is told from the perspective of the one Greek survivor of the Battle, a Spartan helot. He is captured after the battle and saved by Xerxes I, leader of the Persian Empire. The survivor recounts the details of Spartan life, battle techniques, and what happened leading up to and during the Battle of Thermopylae. The Spartans, as you may recall, invented the term ‘hard core.’ You definitely see it in this book. One aspect I found fascinating was the description of wounds and the treatment thereof. At one point someone’s scalp is sliding off! No worries though, he was definitely hard core so he slid it back into place and got on with business.

Another memorable part of the book for me was learning about the helots and how they were used in battle. Sometimes the importance of supply lines and well-kept equipment completely escapes my brain when I'm reading this type of thing and the helots really brought that home for me. And on another note, it reminded me of those poor bastards in the third Matrix movie that had to wheel a buggy of ammo out to the super cool manned-gun-shooting-machines (machines to fight machines, ah, irony! btw, do those things have an official name?). However, unlike in the The Matrix Revolutions there actually was a point to having a supply guy on the front lines.*

Gates of Fire is very well-crafted and the story well-told. I was engaged throughout and I also felt like the author did his best to represent a true account of the battle. Yes, it's written in the style of a novel but the author gained my trust in his representation. In fact, it's been a few years since I first read the book but my first thought way back when was, I need to read some more Pressfield immediately. I have no idea why but I still haven't read any of his other books. Any Pressfield fans want to suggest another title for me?

And while we're here, 300 is the name of a graphic novel by Frank Miller (not to be confused with Frank Miller) depicting these events. A movie was also made from the graphic novel. I haven’t read the graphic novel or seen the movie. Should I?

rating: 4 of 5 stars

*Every time I see those ammo toting guys in The Matrix Revolutions I get so irritable. Besides the fact that those stupid buggies would never get anywhere due to spent shells and all the unexplained paraphernalia lying about (they are be-wheeled after all and you would have to lift them over all that shit), this is clearly a time of technical innovation. No one could come up with the very simple idea of conveyor belts underneath the platform where the super cool manned-gun-shooting-machines are located? That platform was thick, plenty of room for automated ammo delivery. Did we love that skinny kid so much that he needed a crazy macho moment of getting in the super cool manned-gun-shooting-machines after having dying words with the captain? Maybe, but it still could have been better. That plot hole just drives me nuts. When I am freed from the matrix (though in truth why the crap would I want to be? it’s awesome in here and I get to watch movies like The Matrix) and defending Zion from squid machines that function without water, I will use super cool AUTOMATED-gun-shooting-machines

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Minority Report by Philip K. Dick

Title: The Minority Report and Other Classic Stories
Publisher: Kensington Publishing Corp. (1987)
Note: This short story was originally published in Fantastic Universe, Jan 1956

I think it's been about ten years since I first read The Minority Report and I was happy to re-visit it this week. Why the re-visit you ask? Well, I was hanging out over at Lazy Thoughts From a Boomer and saw that the fantabulously generous Michael, sometimes known as leOpard13, was going to watch the movie. I very politely asked begged, with little regard to my personal dignity, that he be so kind as to post his thoughts because I love his review style, and so that we could discuss the awesomeness of the movie. He took my request to the next level suggesting a joint review with me doing the story. I was happy to comply as I'm a big fan of the movie and the short even if they are vastly different. I'll start with a review of the short story and then a few thoughts as compared to the movie. However, I'll probably save most of my movie thoughts for lp13's movie review post.

Click here for Minority Report Film/Disc Review at Lazy Thoughts From a Boomer.

Feel free to comment there or here or both regarding movie and short story thoughts.

Please note that both posts contain spoilers.

John Anderton is the Commissioner of Police and the creator of Precrime, a 30 year old division of the police force that can predict crimes using precogs and detain the predicted perpetrators before they commit crimes. Anderton is showing the facility to his new assistant and eventual successor, Witwer - to whom he has taken an immediate dislike - when the mutant precogs predict that Anderton will kill a man he doesn't know in less than a week. It's a system he's created and used for 30 years to put predicted criminals away but he's convinced there's a mistake; he suspects a conspiracy within the police force. Witwer and Anderton's wife, a high ranking Precrime executive and police officer, are his immediate suspects. He's got about 24hrs before the Army will notice the prediction (they get all the precog data in a checks and balances type of deal) and he plans to run, as far as an off-world colony if that's what it takes.

So, where to begin? How 'bout with the precogs? They are referred to as "mutant precogs," or babbling idiots, but it's not clear whether the mutation is the result of experimentation or nature. Regardless, the mutants are cultivated for their predictive abilities. They are extremely deformed (large heads, under-developed bodies) and not at all aware of the present. They work in a team of three, each one constantly "gibbering" predictions which are fed into machines that then analyze and integrate the predictions. The predictions, referring to about 1-2 weeks into the future, are then printed on cards and analyzed by Precrime.

Anderton's a hard nut to crack. It's pretty obvious why he would be immediately suspicious of Witwer, Witwer is ambitious and wants Anderton's job, but, holy fuck! This guy turned on his wife so fast I had to read the section over again to make sure I didn't misunderstand. As near as I can tell this is because Witwer admires the wife (in classic scifi style she's attractive and Anderton is obviously much less attractive than his movie counterpart even if you don't think Tom Cruise is all that attractive) and the wife congenially speaks with Witwer and invites her husband's new assistant to have dinner with them. My gosh, woman! The nerve! You are clearly a traitor! What actually is interesting about Anderton and his wife is that they have a serious philosophical disagreement and yet they still remain together at the end. After the way they treated each other at the crisis moment I would never have guessed they would remain together but their disagreement is so divisive that I would think it alone would prevent their staying together. However, their disagreement is what I find most intriguing about the story.

When Anderton still believes there is a conspiracy he wants to check the individual reports of the precogs. Almost every predicted crime has a minority report. Two of the three reports need to match in order to create a card with crime details. The minority report usually differs in time or location so this is ignored in lieu of the synched reports. If Anderton can get to the individual reports he can prove a conspiratorial plant. In checking these it becomes clear that he is not going to commit the crime. He wants to publicize this information as it must mean that innocent people have been detained and thus the system is flawed. His wife believes a few mistakes are worth the greater good of Precrime. Let's just say that the insults and violence traded here are enough to strain the best of relationships but they clearly didn't have that good of a relationship and they disagree on a vital philosophy - how can these two remain together? I'd love to hear some theories on this but for now that's not what I want to focus on. Instead... 

Are a few mistakes worth the value of Precrime? 

Let's keep in mind that, in this case, "mistake" means the life detainment of innocents. Also, there's not only the lives of innocents to consider in this set-up but the precogs themselves. They are human, after all, but their deformities have rendered them so inhuman to those in the story that they are completely disregarded as having any rights as humans. Let's also keep in mind that there hasn't been a murder in 5 years (and that was due to human error) because of Precrime. Not to mention all the other types of crimes that have been prevented. For me, this is the most interesting thing about the story: is it acceptable to sacrifice a few for the many? If you're thinking that the story might give some sort of answer then I should warn you that it does not. The truth about the reports neatly sidesteps the issue. 

Craft-wise the story isn't exactly superior. I've always been more attracted to PKD's ideas than his style. The dialogue is challenging to wade through and there are moments I'm actually offended by some of the stuff he writes. Also, he isn't exactly one of those scifi writers that tries to adhere to believability in his science. I won't even attempt to analyze it because I don't think he ever did. Sometimes logic goes completely out the window, as well. There's a section in The Minority Report that makes a really interesting point as to why precogs can work at all but that really interesting point completely negates the resolution of the story. I wonder if Anderton ever noticed the contradiction in his own system?

So how well did this translate to a movie? Excellently, if I do say so myself (and I do!). Other than using a few of the same names I would say the only way in which the movie is similar is that it also presents the question: Are a few mistakes worth the value of Precrime? And unlike the short, the movie definitely has an answer for this. The religious tones cleverly identified by Michael are a product of the movie makers and have no equivalent in the short story. The short story is really more about one man trying to survive one of the biggest challenges he's ever experienced at his job.

What both do equally well is world building. I believe that each of the worlds exists and that I might live there (well, except for the computer punch cards in the short story:). That is one of my absolute requirements in scifi. I have to believe the human element can exist within the world before I can get on board with the rest of it.

Let me leave you with my favorite quotes:
Short story -
The existence of a majority logically implies a corresponding minority.

Movie -
Everybody runs.

Actually, I think you'll have to run but that's the idea.

Your thoughts?

And be sure to check out the film review - here's the relevant link again.

(Michael, many thanks for suggesting this. Children of Men next? I hope, I hope:)

Click here for an index of the joint post series

Monday, May 10, 2010

Great Interview with N.K. Jemisin!

I recently read and loved (and said a few words about) The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. If you haven't had a chance to read the book yet you might be interested in this awesome interview with Ms. Jemisin. I thought the questions were particularly good leading to some very thoughtful answers. I especially liked the details regarding literature/genre expectations and how they can change reader response. The interview is chock full of good stuff but I was particularly struck by this passage:
For example, typical epic fantasy features almost exclusively male protagonists, and female characters who are objectified and lack agency (among many other problems).  In these fantasies it’s common for the kind of sex that’s part of normal, everyday life—healthy, consensual sex between grownups who know what they want and ask for it, in other words—to take place offscreen or by implication only ("fade to black").  Readers just don’t get to see that much, probably because of that girl cooties phenomenon I mentioned earlier.  But sex that’s used as a cheap way to define or create conflict for the male protagonists—e.g., rapes that show just how eeeeeevil a villain is, or motivate the hero to act; women who tempt the hero with their “wiles” as a distraction—gets shown much more often.  The result of this pattern is that a lot of epic fantasy readers have gotten used to seeing sex only under totally pathological circumstances.  =) So when they see *normal* sex, it seems gratuitous. Often they’ll declare that it “has no purpose”—i.e., it doesn’t fit the pattern of male-fantasy melodrama that they’re used to.  At that point it doesn’t matter how well the scene is written, or whether it fits the character, or whatever; they’ll dismiss it as crap regardless.

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase

Title: Lord of Scoundrels
Author: Loretta Chase
Publisher: Avon (1995)

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase is set in early 19th Century England (with sojourns to Paris) and follows the indefatigable Jessica Trent as she tries to figure out the incorrigible Lord Dain. Jessica Trent, a genteel, unmarried young lady, goes to Paris to fetch her dim-witted brother before he entirely squanders the small family fortune. While in Paris she encounters Lord Dain, notorious (and rich!) shunner of society and first-class debaucher. Through a series of delightful and sexually charged events, she and Dain marry before they even know if they like each other. We can rest easy in this as it's a romance so we already know their fate but, also, while Chase doesn’t knock the reader over the head, it’s still pretty clear that these two can only be meant for each other because probably no one else could stand to live with them for long. They have very strong personalities.

This book is a lot of fun to read. The dialogue is great and the unexpected responses will make you laugh out loud. Even halfway through the book when I thought I had Jessica figured out she would pop out with something that left me surprised and laughing. Dain is wonderfully delicious but I’m not overly fond of the Bad Boy Because of Bad Past hero so that aspect of his character did nothing for me. I can’t fault Chase for that, though, it’s merely disinclination on my part but she wrote it well so it was easy to get over. What I would have liked more of was Dain’s oft-described but little seen Character of Bad Repute. It may be that the reader of romance knows that the hero is never truly evil so I couldn't accept his bad character or it may have been that Jessica was so flippant about it that that was what impressed me most or perhaps my modern sensibilities aren't fine-tuned enough to historical social scandals... In any case, I like to see a bit more of the bad in the Bad Boy rather than just be told about him. Then again, maybe this is something I'll never see in romance. If the hero was truly, deep-down-inside bad then he probably wouldn't be the hero, would he?

Characterization was almost universally well-done. My point of contention was with lack of motive outside of the main characters. I felt that only two of the supporting characters were actually assigned motive. However, others of the supporting cast were a bit empty for me, entertaining but empty. I actually became really aggravated with the dim-witted brother character. That poor sop took so much crap. I realize he was a dim-wit but after a while I was like, let up, Chase, and give this guy a chance or quit putting him in scenes. It was becoming painful to watch him in action. Luckily he does completely drop out of the story right around the time you really don’t want to see any more of him.

My teensy complaints aside, I give this book a hearty recommendation. It's funny with snappy dialogue and a thoughtful plot. Jessica and Dain are loads of fun to watch interact! The pacing is excellent making it a definite page-turner. I actually think this is Chase's best book but maybe someone out there thinks she's got one that's even better. If so, please, do share!

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What sgwordy has learned from Robert Crais

(in the matter of Cole/Pike)

Conflict resolution is more fun in a shoot out (justice will probably be meted out therein)

Pinocchio clocks will attract attention but are not necessarily conversation pieces

Cops are violent, territorial, and often employ juvenile humor

Cops are smart, loyal, dedicated, and don't make much money

Crimes are rarely controlled by the plebes. They will commit them but almost always for someone in power. All the better if that someone in power is tied to a gov't agency or institution that us regular folk would like to have trust in.

Mr. Pike sure does love that jeep.

We should all be so lucky to have a friendship in our lives like that of Cole and Pike

Mr. Cole is a cutey patutey smarty pants but he can still get caught out in a cul-de-sac by amateurish tactics
That Cole.

Even though Pike participates in Conspicuous Dress (the likes of which could compete with Assassin's Creed) he can still melt into the scenery at will and never be seen (spooky)

Cole keeps a clean house and cooks some scrumptious meals (Seriously. I'd room with him in second!)

The human body can tolerate an amazing amount of gunshot wounds (though it's best for these to be spread out over time rather than experienced all at once)

The Elvis Cole Detective Agency (we can do anything (probably for free)) is as likely to receive payment as not

Cole sees B&E as a way of life but is seriously creeped out if someone B&Es his house

Pike's eyes make women shift in their seats. I have much curiosity about these eyes.

Crais fans, what have I missed? What would you add?

Regarding Starkey: I think she'd actually be a good partner for Cole because he needs someone that understands a high stress, high violence life. As a cop, she can handle that. She certainly likes him and I think he likes her, too (poss need more Lucy resolution? I might have missed a book where that gets resolved). BUT the constant descriptions of her smoking make it very hard for me to imagine her around anyone too long. My aversion to ciggy smoke is high (like higher than Pike's high) so it might be that, but I swear Crais has depicted her as a chimney with the constant stench of cigs around her. Just reading some of her scenes makes the back of my mouth taste funny. Clearly I can't handle this -- can Cole?

Favorite lines:
Can you spell 'worry?'
We're squaring off against five LAPD officers, and all we're getting paid is forty bucks?

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Title: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Publisher: Orbit (2010)

Note: I just read this book over the weekend and have already loaned it out because I loved it so much I couldn't keep it to myself. As such, this is all from memory so if my spellings, etc are not correct please forgive me.

In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms Yeine, leader of the Darre in the North,  has been called to the city of Sky where the ruling family (of the hundred thousand kingdoms) lives. Her grandfather is king but her mother was disowned for marrying Yeine's father. For reasons that escape Yeine, the king has called her back and named her as a third heir. Now she must learn the ins and outs of palace politics if she wants to survive long enough to assume the throne over her cousins. To complicate her already difficult situation, the gods that are enslaved by the ruling family have their own political agenda for Yeine.

Holy shitballs there was so much about this book that I loved! So let me start with all that I loved and then tell you about the few quibbles I had. Firstly, I have always loved themes that involve mixed family backgrounds and seeing your family through other people's eyes. Yeine's mother was the sole, beloved heir of the Arameri family in Sky. Her father was a leader of the Darre, considered a barbaric people for several interesting reasons that I won't spoil here. The story is that they met and fell instantly in love. Yeine's mother left Sky and joined Yeine's father in Darre. Now that Yeine has been called back to the palace she must try to reconcile her Arameri background (which she is none too impressed with) with the Darre she considers herself. On top of this, she has a very specific idea of who her mother was and now she must deal with hearing things about her mother that do not track with her memories. This entire set-up works so well because the novel often explores identity, truth, self-determination, and courage. Trying to reconcile disparate family backgrounds and others' views of her mom in the midst of palace intrigue make for a nice backdrop to exploring what I listed above.

I also loved the writing style. It's in first person (it's starting to feel like that's all I've been reading lately) but it's very clearly being told as a story and there are times when our narrator is having conversations with an unknown person (poss persons?). This perspective and these conversations lend a nice mystery to what is going on. The narrator knows everything that's coming (remember, it's a story) but the style used by Jemisin keeps the suspense palpable (oooh, fancy word!) for almost the entire book. The style really worked for me but, what's more, Jemisin is a fantastic writer. Even if the style doesn't speak to everyone like it did me her talent as a writer will be enjoyable anyway. Also, her characterization is lovely. With only one exception her characters are interesting and subtle. Jemisin doesn't insist that we know everything about her characters the minute we meet them but lets us get to know them over the course of the book.

The overall story is solid but nothing that's going to blow you away. The ending is pretty predictable because, in the end, it's a very familiar narrative. But Jemisin's talent lies in her excellent use of characters within that narrative and her ability to keep a reader entirely engaged in how things are going to unfold. It's interesting to me that I come away feeling that she plots really well even if I predicted the end. Does that make sense? Journey's the thing, ya know? Also, the gods were fucking awesome! Again, Jemisin used some very classical themes with her gods (they are emotional, fond of or disgusted by humans, seductive) but their being controlled by the Arameri family makes for some sweet conflict. I don't want to spoil anything so that's all I'll say. Trust me, it's good stuff!

Ok, I could go on and on about everything I loved but I'd have to start giving things away in the story and I don't want to do that. So a couple things I didn't like: the baddest of the baddies was the least interesting character. While definitely a badass, she was boring. She was just evil. There was nothing more to her. It's mentioned a couple times that she's crazy. She certainly seemed crazy but that's kind of boring. I like my main baddies to do something more than just be evil for the plot's sake. Also, as with many stories of this length, there's a bit of drag about 3/4 of the way through. Well before this point the ending is pretty obvious (again, let me say that didn't bother me because getting there was totally rad) so if the book had been about ~50 pages shorter it would have been even tighter with that suspense being pretty much non-stop.

This book is the first of a trilogy and I think the second comes out this Fall. I can't wait! I'll be going out and getting it on release day. I love discovering a new author but it's always hard when it's a debut author, I just don't want to wait for the next book! 

rating: 4 of 5 stars