Thursday, September 3, 2015

Trek Thursday: The Devil in the Dark

#8:  The Devil in the Dark 




 In case you forgot: Kirk and Spock team up against a silicon-based life form called a horta that's wreaking havoc on Janus VI, a mining colony. Turns out the horta holds no animosity towards the miners per se, but rather is just doing the best it can to protect its eggs, a huge number of which the miners accidentally destroyed.

 "The Devil in the Dark" has a solid science fiction premise, an intriguing mystery going on for the first half of the episode or so, and a graceful, optimistic ending. Personally, what I like the best about it isn't that the threat isn't an obvious an easy analogue to FOREIGN POWERS or what have you; instead of Klingons or Romulans or some new alien race that inexplicably speaks English, it is a being that humans are incapable of communicating with or relating to. (Sound familiar?) Fortunately Spock's around to work a little mind-melding magic and we get the full picture.

It's a nice little fantasy to think that every bad guy you've read about in the papers or seen on the news is an objectively bad person who truly delights in evil, and sometimes it may even be true. But more often than not, it's a group of people who are just doing what they feel is the right thing, or at least the thing that has to be done to protect themselves. Accommodating them may tax our abilities to the utmost degree, but it's taking that noble path that represents the best parts of humanity.

(Shatner lists this as one of his favorite episodes, incidentally.)

You have to wonder just how willing the miners would be to peacefully coexist with the horta if they weren't getting very convenient, pre-dug tunnels out of the deal.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What I Watched: Trick

A couple weeks ago, JV and I finally wrapped up our journey through the Japanese comedy/mystery drama Trick. It spans three regular television seasons, plus three TV movies and four full-length theatrical releases.

Image courtesy TV Asahi/Wikimedia

The premise is a simple one: struggling but knowledgeable stage magician Yamada Naoko assists nationally renown physicist Ueda Jiro in exposing spiritualist frauds. If you've watched The Mentalist, it's much the same—just more lighthearted.

I don't usually like TV, especially when it's not American. Not that I'm lazy about reading subtitles or uninterested in other cultures. I just kind of hate TV as a medium; besides, J- and K-dramas haven't really had the same production values as their American counterparts until recently, so the shows have almost always looked a little cheap and low budget to me.

JV, on the other hand, is a bit of a J-drama fiend and once in a while he picks out one that he thinks I'll like. That's how we got to watching Trick.

He wasn't wrong, either. After the first episode, I was hooked. There are great characters overall, well-written and well-acted, but each episode usually achieves gender parity, which is nice. Many of the story arcs are also framed in the context of historical stage magic tricks or Japanese folklore, so you can feel like you're getting a little bit smarter each episode.

The series overall is a fun little ode to skepticism and rationalism—magic is almost always a trick, don't let yourself be fooled by someone who wants your money—but it retains elements of the supernatural here and there as a little spice. It's such a little thing (once in a while Yamada's mother just knows that Yamada will need help, or Yamada will have a premonition about something) but it's just nice to see that the show allows itself a little room for imagination and fantasy. And while many of the antagonists unveiled by Yamada and Ueda are money-grubbing charlatans, others are more sympathetic victims of circumstance. I appreciate a show where the bad guys aren't always mustache-twirling villains. The depth of character writing isn't limited to just the main roles; it extends to every single guest star and antagonist who shows up.

The biggest draw of the show, though, is probably the chemistry between Yamada and Ueda. Most of the time, Will They Or Won't They tension doesn't work and it makes me flip tables in rage, but it's played very, very subtly in Trick. Most of the chemistry is based on their banter and trying to get themselves out of scrapes—there's not really a lot of time for romance the way there would be in a more typical sitcom.

The humor translates well across cultures, too. Sometimes there are puns, and then you have to rely on the quality of the subtitles (or your Japanese) to get the joke, but there are plenty of subtle and surreal sight gags throughout the series. The show has an overall quiet tone to it—not the manic energy of the stereotypical wacky Japanese game show or frantic, fit-inducing anime.

A+ would recommend!

Monday, August 31, 2015

Blogger Book Drive: Would You Rather?

Original image courtesy Svilen Milev at Efffective.com


Natalie Patalie, The Happy Arkansan, and Hodge Podge Moments are hosting a virtual book drive for First Book! First Book is a charity that aims to provide books to low income American children. There are loads of studies about the relationship among books in the home, early reading, and later academic (and overall) success. Obviously just the presence of a few books is just a part of the puzzle, but a part is better than nothing at all! You can donate, you can retweet/reblog my entry (or one of the above entries if you think mine is crap), or you can just pimp out this fundraiser link. You can also browse previous prompts (if you're the kind of person who has free time on a Monday): favorite book quotesfavorite childhood booksfavorite authors, and everyone's favorite ______ books.

This week's theme is "would you rather," which is fortuitous because I had just seen this theme on Of Stacks And Cups and was thinking of answering anyway. Now I can kill two birds with one stone!


1. Would you rather read only trilogies or stand-alones?

If you were to snoop in my library (which you can do, kind of, through my GoodReads page), you would see that singles outnumber the series by a good margin. And since we are talking only, I would definitely have to choose stand-alones. I don't always have time to hunt down the next volume of a series. And cliffhangers? Pffft, forget it. I don't need that kind of stress in my life!


2. Would you rather read only male or female authors?

Patriarchy-smashing feminist me says FEMALES! Bookworm me would lament the work it would take to find new favorites and new classics, since many of my favorites were written by men. And I loathe Jane Austen and the Brontes. Sigh.


3. Would you rather shop at Barnes & Noble or Amazon?

Most of my books these days come from the library, my friends abroad, or swaps with other foreigners here in Stockholm. I guess my preferences are closer to B&N (I like going to book stores and looking for things) than to Amazon. But if I were going to go bookshopping here, it wouldn't be Barnes & Noble (there are none). It would be either SF Bokhandeln or The English Book Shoppe.


4. Would you rather all books become movies or TV shows?

Movie. That way it either gets made or it doesn't. You don't have to worry about it being canceled in the middle of the story.


5. Would you rather read 5 pages per day or 5 books per week?

If you're asking what I would rather my life be like right now, I'd say 5 books per week, easy. But if you're asking what I'd be more likely to accomplish, the sad truth is much closer to 5 pages per day. ;_;


6. Would you rather be a professional reviewer or author?

I think it would be easier for me to be a professional reviewer. I mean, heck, this jewelry blog is practically a book blog anyway...

This is not to say that I don't write fiction, or don't like to do so. I actually have a billion novels I'm working on, but I invest a lot of time and energy and perfectionism into them, and quite frankly I don't know how well I could hold up to public scrutiny. Or praise, for that matter. If I were to become an author, I'd either have to publish under a nom de plume or go the total recluse route so that I could keep my writing separate from myself (and my "self," if that makes sense).

If I were a professional reviewer, on the other hand, I could integrate that pretty well into my daily life. I already sit on my ass and snark on the Internet anyway, so I'm already halfway there!


7. Would you rather only read your top 20 favorite books over and over or always read new ones that you haven't read before?

Is this a list of 20 that I decide beforehand? Or is there some magical book genie out there who knows me better than I know myself?

Either way, because I tend to have a good book memory, I think I'd rather always read something new. If I want to remember something about a book I've read before, I can always look it up on the Internet.


8. Would you rather be a librarian or book seller?

I still haven't entirely given up my childhood dream of being a librarian.


9. Would you rather only read your favorite genre, or every genre except your favorite?

Puny mortal! As if I could have one single favorite genre! As if my favorite books could be neatly categorized into one genre! Hah!


10. Would you rather only read physical books or eBooks?

I acknowledge the utility of eBooks, but if I have to make a choice for life, I am very much Team Dead Tree.


Feel free to answer these questions (or Natalie's or Amanda's), add them to the link-up, and spread the word! The Blogger Book Drive Fundraiser ends soon. If you've been putting off donating, they're coming up on the point of no return, so do it. Do it now!

Friday, August 28, 2015

Five Fandom Friday: 5 Real-Life Geeks Who Inspire You

Today's 5 Fandom Friday (brought to you by Super Space Chick and Nerdy Girlie) is a good one. A couple of the last questions haven't really been my thing, plus I've been busy, but this week's prompt has me back in the swing of things.

5 Real-Life Geeks Who Inspire Me


1. Lawyer Mom


Image courtesy Marcin Wysmulek/FreeImages.com
Not pictured, because it's just weird to post a picture of Lawyer Mom here. Enjoy this mama horse and her foal? colt? instead.

I did not appreciate all of the badass things my mom did (going to school for engineering in the 70s, working at Bell Labs in the 80s, continuing her career after having kids, opening her own business when she was dissatisfied with her job at AT&T) until I was an adult, but now that I'm adult I can say holy shit I could never do that. In addition to being a badass, Lawyer Mom is also a geek (bookworm, Trekkie, Jeopardy! fiend) with a huge heart. She was and is the perfect mom for me.


2. JV




JV is also not pictured (again, weird; enjoy our shadows from a trip to Finland), and also not mentioned much, but he is just as much an inspiration as Lawyer Mom. JV and I have been together a long time, considering our ages (12 years!) and I can safely say I would not be who I am without him. In addition to being an incurable video game addict and East Asian horror movie fan, he is a wellspring of patience, good nature, tolerance, and empathy. I could go on but suffice it to say that I am really lucky to have him in my life.


3. Anita Sarkeesian


Image courtesy Anita Sarkeesian and Wikimedia.


I wonder if this will trigger any outraged comments from the ~*~gaemergaet~*~ crowd. On the other hand, who cares?

No one would spend so much time and effort publicly discussing video games if they didn't like them, and that's just how it is. It's sad that I can sit here and say that Sarkeesian is brave for putting her opinion out there, because you shouldn't have to be brave just to voice an opinion, but that's how it goes, I guess. I can barely muster the courage to respond to ignorant Facebook comments, never mind being a public figure. Let me buy you a drink, girlfriend.


4. Ellen Pao

I'm just going to leave this here:

(Another GIMP masterpiece by JV. One of many reasons I love him.)

5. Neil deGrasse Tyson




I mean, he's Neil deGrasse Tyson. 'nuff said.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Trek Thursday: The Tholian Web

#9: The Tholian Web




In case you forgot: In search of a missing ship, the Enterprise finds it in some weird in-between space (so much for that sacrifice Lazarus made in "The Alternative Factor") where two different parallel universes are in contact. Kirk gets stuck in the parallel universe and Spock has to decide whether to try and save the captain or to escape this weird bubble in the universe that's making the crew lose their minds before the Tholians finish caging them in.

Much as I love TOS, I have to say: an episode largely bereft of Kirk is almost refreshing to watch. More than that, we've got some good old-fashioned sci-fi going on here, and again, one of my favorite moral dilemmas to come up in TOS: do you risk the many to save the few (or even the one)? Of course TOS always comes down on the side of the few/one, which I guess does get repetitive, but it does make for some of the more compelling plots in the show.

The pacing on "Tholian Web" is solid. Each new disaster (missing the interphase, engines busted, crew going crazy, Kirk's diminishing oxygen supply) adds to the tension without seeing artificially tacked-on, making the payoff when they are able to recover captain Kirk immensely satisfying (even though we know that, of course, Kirk will survive).

McCoy's mistrust of Spock seems to go a bit too far, however. It's been well-determined by now that Spock harbors no ambitions for power whatsoever; Bones refusal to accept this is too stupid to be entirely consistent with his character. I can understand being freaked out by someone's lack of freaking out, but come on Leonard!

Why are the Tholians so needlessly antagonistic? I guess in the big bad galaxy some races are bound to be jerks and it's just too bad that the Tholians are one of them.

What I Read: Girl With Curious Hair

Courtesy GoodReads

Speaking of my favorite authors over in the Blogger Book Drive post, here's a David Foster Wallace collection that I finished on vacation.

I first came to Wallace after a friend whose taste I trust recommended Infinite Jest. "You guys are both Writing and Philosophy double majors, you're like soul mates," he said, or something similar. So I picked it up and after a slow start I was sucked in. It was something else.

I became thirsty for Wallace. I read articles online and picked up collections of essays and short fiction. There isn't much left in his collected works I haven't read (I'm not touching A Pale King; I don't believe in posthumously publishing novels), so when I saw Girl With Curious Hair in a used bookstore I had to buy it. It was a good traveling companion for the last leg of my journey out of the Pacific Northwest and back to Sweden.

In a nutshell: it is weird. It is weirder than his other short fiction, in that there often isn't a concluding or satisfying logic to these short bits of world there is in his later work. Girl...is one of those works I can appreciate it from a fan perspective (observing the evolution of his style) and even a literary commentary perspective (what he does with narrative and language and etc.) but I can't viscerally enjoy it. A lot of times when I read something, whether it's a whole novel or even just a short story, I usually leave with the sense that I can answer the question, "Why did the author write this story?" Such was not the case here; most of the stories in this collection I struggled to find that driving force.

This isn't surprising. Girl... is a very early work and Wallace was still polishing his voice and style. I can forgive the rough edges because they're a necessary part of the artistic process.

But the neat thing about a collection of short fiction is that I can give you a nutshell review of each selection in addition to my impressions of the whole thing!

"Little Expressionless Animals" is maybe the strongest piece in here, by which I mean: the one that is the most satisfying, narratively. It's up there with "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way," which makes me wonder if Wallace's editor followed the old stand-up comedy advice of putting your best joke last, your second-best first, and then ping-ponging your way through the set until the worst is in the middle.

"Little Expressionless Animals" starts out a bit rough but ultimately you can put the pieces together and it's a fucked up and yet entirely believable story. Also it's a lot about Jeopardy!, which I love (and miss). Through the lens of American game show entertainment we eventually get a very clear portrait of one woman's life.

"Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR" is well-polished in terms of pacing and language, a very tight and focused little story that nonetheless lacked that "...but why?" urgency.

And now the eponymous selection, "Girl With Curious Hair." It has that same fucked-up surreality as "Little Expressionless Animals" (childhood tragedy seems to be a theme across Wallace's fiction), with the freak-out factor cranked up to 11.

Afterwards we have "Lyndon," which I appreciate as a fictional character study (not being an American presidential history buff I have no idea how much in this story was pure imagination and how much was based on extensive LBJ research), but not much more.

"John Billy" is a remarkable piece if only for the deft control of language and dialect Wallace exhibits.

"Here And There" is a tough nut to crack. I found this one probably the hardest to get into and I don't really have much else to say about it.

(Interestingly, if my "stand-up routine order" hypothesis is correct, this would suggest that Wallace or his editor or someone else thought that "Here And There" and "John Billy" were the weakest in the collection. I think I agree.)

"My Appearance" returns to a more or less linear form and, even if it's an unremarkable story in this collection, it's at least complete in a way many of the other stories are not. That completeness but also that theme of television appearances (this time Letterman instead of Jeopardy!) tie this story pretty strongly to "Little Expressionless Animals," at least for me. Never mind that it goes without saying that an "unremarkable" David Foster Wallace story is still really good.

Biographical snapshots continue with "Say Never," though outside the purview of television and instead from the perspective of perfectly normal and caring (though quickly aging) parents. Again, that earlier comment about "unremarkable" applies.

"Everything is Green" is a sudden, though not unpleasant, brief little thumbnail (it's just one page, front and back; the shortest in the book by a significant margin). I love what can be done in such short fiction, but this is a case where a few extra words would have imparted a lot more meaning.

Finally, we have the granddaddy of the whole collection:  "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way." It's over a hundred pages and takes up a good third of the book. Do I have more to say about it? Um. In a nutshell, it's about a bunch of people trying to make a grand opening of a new (fast food?) eatery based on Barth's (here fictionalized as Ambrose) Lost in the Funhouse. I haven't read any Barth (and was not sure the title even existed until I Googled it after reading), so there was a lot in this sucker that eluded me. I'll come back to it, one day, but today is not that day.

Like all of Wallace's writing, the stories in Girl...are dense, nested, and complicated. They demonstrate a remarkable technical control and you can even see the seeds of later work in them. But is it of interest to anyone who isn't already a fan of David Foster Wallace? Is this the first book of his that you should read? Probably not, and no. But for the fan, it is essential.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Blogger Book Drive Week 4: Best Science Fiction Books

Original image courtesy Beniamin Pop/FreeImages.com


Natalie Patalie, The Happy Arkansan, and Hodge Podge Moments are hosting a virtual book drive for First Book! First Book is a charity that aims to provide books to low income American children. There are loads of studies about the relationship among books in the home, early reading, and later academic (and overall) success. Obviously just the presence of a few books is just a part of the puzzle, but a part is better than nothing at all! You can donate, you can retweet/reblog my entry (or one of the above entries if you think mine is crap), or you can just pimp out this fundraiser link. You can also browse previous prompts (if you're the kind of person who has free time on a Monday): favorite book quotesfavorite childhood books, and favorite authors.

This week's prompt is Best ______ Books. I decided to go with science fiction—I am not heavily involved in the scene, but I like to think that my distance from the fandom-at-large means that I have discerning taste. (Read as: "I'm a total fucking snob.") I also did my best to shift my focus away from the heaviest of the heavy hitters of the genre and on to names that are maybe not as well-known (at least, not as well-known outside the fandom). In no particular order:

1. Interstellar Pig (William Sleator)


Remember when book covers looked like this?
Pepperidge Farm remembers. (Image courtesy Goodreads.)


William Sleator was the YA science fiction guy of my time, or at least in my middle school. Unfortunately, I think as he aged he became painfully less relevant (or tried harder to be hip). But his earlier stories are timeless, and Interstellar Pig might well be the best of them. House of Stairs won a bunch of awards, too, but I think Interstellar Pig is better.


2. Doomsday Book (Connie Willis)

Image courtesy Wikimedia
Is this one of the best time travel books I've ever read? Yes. Unequivocally. Imagine Michael Crichton's Timeline, and then imagine it was written by someone with more talent who had done more research. Imagine if she had also written about a theme park with cloned dinosaurs...!

Come at me, Crichton fan club.



3. Light (M. John Harrison)


Image courtesy Goodreads

This was a fantastic piece of hard SF that blew my mind in all kinds of ways. It probably holds up to re-reading, since years later I can't remember the details or plot twists well—only that the world building was amazing and that the story blew my mind in all kinds of ways. I don't mean that to imply that book is forgettable, either. I usually have a pretty good memory for stories (and, let's face it, a lot of stories follow predictable plot points and use familiar character tropes), which means that I don't often re-read things. For years. But there was so much going on Light that I could not keep track of it all. And it's the first in a trilogy?! I can't speak for the other two, but Light is really good.


4. Dying Inside (Robert Silverberg)

Image courtesy Wikimedia

What makes Dying Inside a remarkable book is the way it integrates science fiction into the story and makes the character (in this case, an aging telepath who is starting to lose his powers) the focus of the story instead of the whiz-bang wow technology/alien races/foreign cultures. Even though this one is considered Silverberg's masterpiece, and Silverberg is himself a pretty big name, I feel like I've never met anyone else who's read this. That is a tragedy.


I could go on, but this seemed like a good place to stop myself for now. What are your favorite science fiction books? Let me know in a Tweet or in the comments, and don't forget to chip in a couple bucks to the Blogger Book Drive!