Monday, May 23, 2011

Random Thought - A Massive Sidetrack

So this past Saturday I acquired a massive diversion that will likely slow my reading and posting rate down to a crawl. I went to the semi-annual Purcellville Library Book Sale and, as I usually do I headed straight for the science fiction and fantasy section to begin hunting through the offerings with the aim of filling a couple of boxes with books. While I was busily pulling out piles of books and tossing them into my bags, one of the volunteers working the sale walked up to me, and we had basically this conversation:

Her: "We will sell the fantasy and science fiction books for one dollar a box."
Me: "One dollar a box? You mean one dollar for the little boxes?"
Her:"No, one dollar for any box, including those bigger pallet boxes."
Me:  Blink
Me: "How many boxes can I buy?"
Her: "As many as you want."
Me: "I'll take all of them."
Her: "You're kidding."
Me: "No, I'm serious. Just figure out a total while I pull my car around."

And so I bought every science fiction and fantasy book they had. Well, almost. Another science fiction fan came up when I was getting things together and was a little disappointed that I was taking all the books. So I gave him two boxes of books and one box of magazines. I love books, but I'm willing to share the love with other fans. Even so, I ended up with the haul of books in the picture. After I got them home and was able to count them up, I found out that I had acquired 1,297 books. For thirty-four dollars. Which works out to 0.26 cents per book. Breaking it down by type, the pile includes 47 hardbacks, 5 trade paperbacks, 1,148 mass market paperbacks, and 98 genre magazines (mostly old issues of Asimov's Science Fiction, and Fantasy & Science Fiction).

But now I need to sort through these, clean them, remove all the stickers and price tags, and then catalog them. I know for certain that some of these books are duplicates of books I already have in my collection, but I'm sure I'll find them good homes. But this is going to take a while, just getting them all into alphabetical order is going to take a couple days. Getting them cataloged in my preliminary list will take a while, let along getting them listed in my comprehensive database. This means that I will be side tracked for the next two to three weeks at least, which will cut into me reading and reviewing time, which will slow me down even more than my current glacially slow pace. On the flip side, I'm in between the spring session and summer session of classes, so that frees up a fair amount of time per week for the next few weeks. I'm not complaining. I'm going to be spending many hours with these books in the next few weeks. Other bibliophiles will certainly understand that this is a prospect that I am looking forward to.

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Saturday, May 21, 2011

2011 Nebula Award Nominees

Location: Washington D.C.

Comments: By 2011, the Nebula Awards had taken their modern shape. At least if you call the form they took by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century their "modern" form. Given the somewhat chaotic state the awards have been in, and their ambivalent relationship with filmed science fiction, only time will tell if the current arrangement with young adult novels honored by the officially non-Nebula Andre Norton Award, dramatic presentations honored by the officially non-Nebula Ray Bradbury Award, and the Nebulas themselves being handed out for novels, novellas, novelettes, and short stories.

The Nebulas also seem to have matured somewhat in the areas of gender and racial equity, although much is still to be desired in those areas. Women are well represented among the winners and nominees (despite being conspicuously absent from the nominees for the Ray Bradbury Award), and non-Causcasian authors are common enough to be noticed in the ranks of the nominees.

Best Novel

Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis

Other Nominees:
Echo by Jack McDevitt
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
The Native Star by M.K. Hobson
Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Best Novella

The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window by Rachel Swirsky

Other Nominees:
The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi
Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance by Paul Park (reviewed in Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 118, Nos. 1 & 2 (January/February 2010)
Iron Shoes by J. Kathleen Cheney
The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang

Best Novelette

That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made by Eric James Stone (reviewed in Analog Science Fiction and Fact: Vol. CXXX, No. 9 (September 2010))

Other Nominees:
The Fortuitous Meeting of Gerard van Oost and Oludara by Christopher Kastensmidt
The Jaguar House, in Shadow by Aliette de Bodard (reviewed in Asimov's Science Fiction: Vol. 34, No. 7 (July 2010))
Map of Seventeen by Christopher Barzak
Pishaach by Shweta Narayan
Stone Wall Truth by Caroline M. Yoachim

Best Short Story

(tie) How Interesting: A Tiny Man by Harlan Ellison
(tie) Ponies by Kij Johnson

Other Nominees:
Arvies by Adam-Troy Castro
Ghosts of New York by Jennifer Pelland
The Green Book by Amal El-Mohtar
I'm Alive, I Love You, I'll See You in Reno by Vylar Kaftan

Ray Bradbury Award

Inception by Christopher Nolan
Other Nominees:
Despicable Me screenplay by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul; story by Sergio Pablos; directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud
Doctor Who: Vincent and the Doctor written by Richard Curtis; directed by Jonny Campbell
How to Train Your Dragon screenplay by William Davies, Dean DeBlois, and Chris Sanders; directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World screenplay by Michael Bacall and Edgar Wright; directed by Edgar Wright
Toy Story 3 screenplay by Michael Arndt; story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Lee Unkrich; directed by Lee Unkrich

Andre Norton Award

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

Other Nominees:
Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld
The Boy from Ilysies by Pearl North
A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
White Cat by Holly Black

Go to previous year's nominees: 2010
Go to subsequent year's nominees: 2012

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Review - Farscape: Thank God It's Friday . . . Again (Season 1, Episode 6)

Digging for space turnips
"Today is the last day of the work cycle. Tomorrow is a rest day" - Ka D'Argo

Short review: D'Argo takes up the life of a farmer, Rygel begins exploding, Aeryn has to do some sciency stuff, and Crichton has to figure out why everyone seems to be going insane.

After hyper-rage
Kha D'Argo works and parties
It's Friday again

Long review: This sixth episode of Farscape opens with yet another alien quirk: D'Argo (Anthony Simcoe) is in the midst of hyper-rage, a condition that leads him to want to kill Crichton (Ben Browder). One of the great elements of Farscape is the fact that the aliens are alien in their physiology. So far we have learned that Sebaceans cannot regulate their body heat, Hynerians fart helium when they are nervous or angry, Delvians can accelerate their actions to incredible speeds, and Luxans must bleed clear to prevent infection and now, they fly into a hyper-rage every now and then. The list of alien biological quirks is stacking up fairly quickly. They may look kind of like humans, but they are definitely not like us.

Unable to find Crichton, D'Argo apparently sets off to a nearby planet, but since Crichton doesn't know this he keeps hiding. While showing John video of enraged D'Argo Aeryn (Claudia Black) points out that they couldn't find him for three days after the Luxan left the ship, and comments upon how he must have had a lot of practice hiding. This is the first of Aeryn's quick-witted lines, and while we've seen glimpses of the sardonic and sarcastic side of her personality this is the episode where she really starts to come into her own. When Crichton wonders why he was the target of D'Argo's hyper-rage, Zhaan (Virginia Hey) says it was because he was the only other male, prompting John to ask the obvious question: "Well, Spanky here's male. I think, sort of. I mean, how come he's not after you?", in reference to Rygel (Jonathan Hardy). Other than Rygel growling "D'Argo knows better", there isn't much of an answer to this, one of the few times the series sort of ignored the fact that Rygel is supposed to be a full-fledged character. But I love every instance in which Crichton calls Rygel by the nickname Sparky, so that can be overlooked.

In search of D'Argo, and hoping that his hyper-rage has dissipated, the four mobile members of Moya's crew head off to the planet that he absconded to. We get a short view of the area they are landing in, which looks like a giant office building surrounded by not much of anything. Once on the surface, they find the planet hot, even though it is night, to such an extent that concern for Aeryn's well-being is immediately voiced. Upon seeing the red-clad, heavily tanned and blond natives, Crichton has to make an Earth-reference, bringing up Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, or at least Mel Gibson and Tina Turner, which is very apropos as Farscape was filmed in Australia as well. Deciding that the best place to find D'Argo is at a party, they stroll into an intergalactic rave, complete with generic television dance music.

Once inside, John comments on how the natives appear to be Sebacean, a suggestion to which Aeryn reacts quite negatively. John retreats to calling them kissing cousins to the Sebaceans, "just like humans", which drives Aeryn to hyperbole, stating that if it is ever shown that human are related to Sebaceans she'll let Palmolian meat hounds tear all the flesh from her bones. Well, maybe not Aeryn. Another funny little element in this scene is that Aeryn carries a pulse rifle with her the entire time. Not only does no one stop her, including the rather effeminately dressed guards in black mosquito nets standing by the entrance, no one even seems to notice she's packing a military rifle to a party.

Crichton notices D'Argo dancing along with the rave just as D'Argo notices him, and begins to run away as D'Aargo chases him. Once he catches Crichton, D'Argo begins to give him bear hugs, leading to Crichton to wonder "This is the end of hyper-rage? I get hugged to death?" And then the opening credits roll. One thing that should be clear now that the show is hitting its stride is that Farscape packs a lot into each episode.

As the group assembles around the now-found D'Argo, the wayward Luxan informs them that he is happy and wants to stay with the Skyarans (as the locals are called) and has taken up a life as a laborer. In the three days he's been away from Moya it seems that D'Argo has sunk some pretty deep roots. Aeryn reacts badly to D'Argo's new found love of farming, asserting that he's a warrior and not a laborer - a glimpse into Aeryn's view of the world, and coincidentally of her place in it, both of which will begin to be seriously challenged in this episode. D'Argo reminds her that he has been a prisoner and a fugitive for longer than he was ever actually a warrior, which is an interesting angle as well, since much of D'Argo's time as a fugitive seems to have been spent fighting threats to Moya and her crew, which one might think would count in the "warrior" column of the ledger. D'Argo heads off with one of the very blond, very attractive Skyaran women. As he walks off, Aeryn voices her belief that D'Argo has lost his brain, which seems to be her thinking any time a man of her acquaintance is in pursuit of sex. On the other hand, as this episode comes right on the tail of Back and Back and Back to the Future in which D'Argo admitted that he pretty much did lose his ability to exercise any kind of judgment over a woman, she does have a point.

I'm really pale. I'm totally stoned.
I'm also in charge. I think. Maybe.
Since a motley assortment of a half-dozen aliens wouldn't be unnoticed on a planet with a seemingly homogenous population, the remaining crew get a visit from Volmae (Angie Milliken), the pale and seemingly stoned out of her mind leader of the Skyarans. Later we learn that the Skyaran leader was supposedly picked at random, but seeing Volmae, who, with her white skin, white hair and red eyes, appears to be an albino amidst a society of tanned people living on a hot and sunny planet, I wonder if that is true. If she actually is an albino, Volmae certainly would have a difficult time participating in the everyday work that most of the populace seems to engage in harvesting tannot root under the harsh and unrelenting sun. her appearance does certainly mark her as different than all the other inhabitants of the planet, as do her all white clothes which stand out in the sea of red outfits that surround her. Zhaan takes the lead here, engaging in a little personal diplomacy, and introducing all of the other crew members each of whom responds in their own idiosyncratic way: Crichton flashing a peace sign, and Rygel pausing from stuffing his face only long enough to belch. Volmae's words are welcoming, suggesting that the travelers are welcome to stay as long as they wish, but her mannerisms are so creepy and off-putting that Aeryn tries to use a human colloquialism to express her thoughts, with humorous results:

A woody? Did you really just say that?
Aeryn Sun, "She gives me a woody. Woody. It's a human saying. I've heard you say it often. When you don't trust someone or they make you nervous, they give you-"
John Crichton, "Willies. She gives you the willies."

With that, the party breaks up and the crew heads outside. While everyone else is paying attention to other concerns, Crichton is accosted by one of the local women and told that he must stay on the planet. Aeryn voices the opinion that since D'Argo wants to stay, they should leave him, return to Moya, and head elsewhere. Crichton rejects this idea, saying they have to get D'Argo back. But other than the meta reason that Anthony Simcoe is a regular cast member on the show, one has to wonder why. Unlike in Throne for a Loss where recovering Rygel was necessary to recover the part of Moya he had absconded with, there is no real compelling reason why getting D'Argo back on Moya is required. The only connection between them is a few months on Moya, Crichton and Aeryn don't even have the shared experience of Peacekeeper incarceration with him. This is one of the instances in which the characters on Farscape seem to behave like a typical group of role-playing game characters: D'Argo is part of the group designated as special, so they must get him back. No other reason need be given. This sort of clannish behavior on television shows often takes place, but usually they have some reason to be together, which at this point in the show is more or less absent.

Meanwhile having gorged himself to bursting, Rygel heads off to relieve himself and promptly finds himself in the middle of an explosion. He claims that someone tried to assassinate him, but Aeryn, continuing her barrage of sarcastic biting commentary, snaps "No one knows you here. Only the people who know you want to kill you." The crew then agree to split up, with Zhaan and Crichton staying planetside in order to try to get D'Argo back, and Aeryn and Rygel leaving to go back to Moya and the B-plot.

Zhaan and Crichton quickly locate D'Argo's new home, pointing out the rather obvious fact that as the only Luxan around he stands out among his neighbors. Zhaan and Crichton try to convince D'Argo to come back to Moya, but he asserts that he is content. What makes this conversation unsettling is that in the three days that he has been on Skyara D'Argo appears to have picked up the same speech mannerism displayed by Volmae. D'Argo cuts the conversation short, telling his crew mates that the next day is a rest day and he will be able to show them the wonders of Skyara in the morning. He apologizes for only being able to offer them the floor to sleep on, which is odd, since he pulls down a Murphy bed as he says this, which means they aren't actually going to sleep on the floor. He then opens his bedroom door and we get an idea of what D'Aargo's priorities for the night are as the lovely blond he left the party with is busy stretching in the bedroom. It seems that the "long time" that D'Argo brought up in Back and Back and Back to the Future has ended. One thing that rearranging the order of the shows did was move Back and Back and Back to the Future from episode five in the season, which placed it directly before this one, to third in the season, which meant that Throne for a Loss and PK Tech Girl came between the two in the inexplicably reordered original airing of the show. As a result the longing expressed by D'Argo in Back and Back and Back to the Future was distanced from the events of those taking place in Thank God It's Friday. . . Again, diminishing the connection between D'Argo's desire and the fulfillment of those expressed desires.

Left alone, Zhaan and Crichton bed down for what seems to be an incredibly uncomfortable night for Crichton. Zhaan, being an overtly sexual being, is clearly unashamed of nudity, or intimate closeness with a friend. Crichton, on the other hand, carries the baggage of human culture around with him, and is clearly uncomfortable sharing a bed with Zhaan. And even more so when her hands wander as she sleeps. So Crichton is visibly relieved when Aeryn calls in with an update on the B-plot. While Zhaan and Crichton have been trying to convince D'Argo to leave Skyara and spooning, Rygel continued to periodically explode despite being returned to the presumably safe environs of Moya. Aeryn quickly figures out that Rygel's bodily fluids have turned explosive, leading to her call to John for help. He tells her to deal with it, and offers the advice that she shouldn't let Rygel eat or drink anything, which makes the gluttonous Hynerian whimper. Aeryn, for her part, is trepidatious about doing what she calls "tech stuff", a clear connection to her disdain for D'Argo's new found fondness for "labor" expressed at the beginning of the episode. With no one available to help her save for Pilot (Lani Tupu), Aeryn is forced into a role she does not want.

I am the Resistance!
I am armed with worms
and I'm not afraid to use them!
In the morning, D'Argo tells his confused crew mates that he has to go work. Apparently the new day is the last day in the work cycle and the next day will be a rest day. Given that the previous night D'Argo had told them that this day would be a rest day, both John and Zhaan both find this odd. Given that this episode is supposed to follow on the heels of the time looping events of Back and Back and Back to the Future, the seemingly artificially induced Groundhog Day effect is an interesting thematic contrast when juxtaposed with the real time travel of the previous installment of the series (which is of course lost in the stupidly reordered arrangement of the opening episodes). Following D'Argo to work, they find themselves in a crowd of Skyarans walking to the fields grabbing packages of fairly unappetizing looking food along the way. Once in the fields, under the bright sun, one begins to wonder: If the Skyarans are supposed to be related to the Sebaceans, why aren't they affected by the heat? For that matter, how did the Sebaceans, with their ridiculously exploitable vulnerability become a military power? For example, even if Peacekeepers wanted to rule over Skyara, they could not conduct a military campaign in the daytime. In any event, Crichton sees the woman that accosted him the previous night and follows her, and is then grabbed, dragged into a railroad car, and has a worm the size of a corn dog stuck through his navel. (I have to question the insertion of objects into people via their navel. Television shows seem to use this as a catch all "get into the character's gut" avenue, but the last time I checked, it really wasn't an orifice). He is then told that he must eat, if he tells anyone that he has a worm inside him that Volmae will have him killed, and is then abandoned. We then get a somewhat psychedelic scene as Crichton rolls around looking distraught and trying to eat. Though we only saw Browder's "Crichton going insane" face for the first time in the previous episode, it shows up again here. For anyone who has not seen the series, I'll just say that you should get used to this look. While Crichton suffers from the effects of having a giant worm crawling around his stomach (and wait, how did it get into his stomach through his navel, maybe we shouldn't ask some kinds of questions . . .), Zhaan spends the day with D'Argo digging up what look like the largest turnips in the universe. Zhaan describes her own decision to become a Pa'u, comparing her rapid decsion to enter the priesthood with D'Argo's apparent snap decision to devote himself to farming root vegetables. But as the conversation progresses Zhaan becomes more and more enamored of the work D'Argo is doing, and by the end of the day she too is a convert to the wonders of digging in the mud on Skyara.

Peace out bro'
This presents a problem for Crichton as he now has no one on the planet he can confide his new wormy state to, for fear of being turned in and killed. Instead, they all head out to the nightly rave party, where Crichton is introduced to his Skyaran worm-providing friends. Actually, they introduce themselves by putting a gun to his back and marching him over to their leader, a turban wearing man named Hybin (Ken Blackburn) whose daughter Tanga (Tina Thomsen) had been Crichton's first contact. Exposition flows heavily in this scene as Crichton is informed that the tannot root that they spend all day digging up is the cause of all the weirdness around him: It makes most of those who eat it more pliable. And all of the food on the planet is made with tannot root, so except for those who have "the worm" and those rare few who are naturally immune the broadcast instructions direct their daily activities, including apparently the repeated instruction that tomorrow will be a rest day. Hybin instructs Crichton that he has to act like he's affected by the root or he will be killed, repeating his earlier admonishments, which leads to a hilarious scene with Crichton and Volmae where he clumsily tries to conceal his non-drugged state (which she leads off by clumsily flashing a peace sign at him, in imitation of his similar greeting at the opening of the show), and she clumsily tries to interrogate him. Crichton proves to be laughably awful at acting the part, but it is okay, because Volmae is pretty bad at questioning him, whether this is because she's just dimwitted, or because she is drugged in some way, or because she is just used to everyone following her orders is not clear. In the end, Crichton manages to not get himself killed and lives to go to bed when the party ends.

Rygelsicle. At least he won't blow up.
Back in the B-plot on Moya, Aeryn has flash frozen Rygel to keep him from sweating - and frozen Rygel is pretty ugly and cute at the same time. After Aeryn accidentally breaks off one of Rygels frozen whiskers, Pilot suggests that Aeryn shouldn't touch any of Rygel's other protuberances. Umm, thanks Pilot. I suppose he is going for the title "Captain Obvious". Aeryn is frustrated, as she claims she has no affinity for science, turning to Pilot and insisting that he is more skilled at doing this sort of work than her, which brings a somewhat unexpected revelation: Pilot says that although he is the navigator of the ship, and responsible for maintaining all of its functions, he is not particularly good at scientific research. Pilot, via Moya, has access to large databases of scientific information, but admits that he is unable to understand more than a small fraction of it, illustrating the difference between cataloging and comprehending. This is an interesting revelation about Pilot's knowledge and also an important point in the developing relationship between Pilot and Aeryn, as he notes that he trusts her. And as Farscape is built on the personalities of the characters and more importantly on the relationships between the characters, this is one of the critical sequences in the episode. Punctuated by a few calls to Crichton for moral support of dubious quality, Aeryn tackles the problem, eventually figuring out what is causing Rygel's sweat and other bodily fluids to explode, but more importantly overcoming her hesitation about doing "tech" work. To a certain extent, this character development for Aeryn parallels the character development experienced by Rygel all the way back in I, E.T. where he had to overcome his fear of failure to help Moya except that this time it is Rygel in need of aid, and another individual must step out of their comfort zone to render it. Rygel later complains about Peacekeeper's being killers, which results in Aeryn snapping back that "a Peacekeeper saved your life". Maybe so, but on the run, and under the influence of her crew mates, Aeryn is becoming more than a Peacekeeper. One can only speculate what the Sebaceans could achieve if they were freed of their apparently harsh police state existence.

Look at my giant space turnip. Isn't it lovely?
Back on Skyara, Crichton wakes to the now familiar refrain that "this is the last day of the work cycle and tomorrow is a rest day". Seeking answers, he Shanghai's Tanga for a heart to heart conversation and discovers more about the tannot root: it was brought to Skyara from another world, its cultivation was forced upon the Skyarans, and they ship most of each crop off world twice a year. The root is apparently also destructive - whereas the Skyarans once planted a variety of crops and their world was a lush, green place, they now plant nothing by tannot and the world is slowly turning into a wasteland. When Crichton questions how Volmae could have allowed this to happen, Tanga points out that she is under directions from the outsiders, and she would be killed if she refused to obey. Despite being creepy and weird, it seems that Volmae is as much an enslaved victim as the rest of the populace. With the plot needing to move along, we get a scene between Volmae and Crichton where she escorts him through the warehouse district of Skyara. After asking him some questions about space, revealing her provincialism and the yearning to escape her dying world, Volmae reveals the vast storage area filled with tannot root and asks if Moya could carry it all. What she also inadvertently reveals is a huge collection of Peacekeeper banners, finally solving the mystery of exactly who the outsiders are who have imposed their will upon Skyara. Volmae demands that Rygel and Aeryn return to the planet and they commence loading Moya full of tannot, deducing that if the root has value to the outsiders, it must have value elsewhere. Despite her apparent dippiness, Volmae is at least a little bit clever.

Smile, we're arguing.
Crichton calls in the troops, bringing Aeryn and Rygel to the surface as Volmae asked. Once down, Crichton and Aeryn have an argument over how to handle the situation, but since they are both supposed to be under the influence of the tannot root, and therefore happy and cheerful they are forced to wear fake smiles through the altercation. In the end, Crichton's plan wins out, a plan which consists of taunting Volmae into the street and having Rygel pee explosive urine all over the place. And with that the A-plot and the B-plot come together: it turns out that tannot root is useful for making chakin oil, a necessary component of the ammunition for Peacekeeper pulse weapons, and coincidentally what Rygel's body naturally processed the tannot root he consumed into. So added to the list of strange elements of alien physiology we have the Hynerian quirk that when they consume tannot root their body makes rifle ammunition. Once Crichton presents this information to D'Argo and Zhaan, they immediately change their minds about staying, which is understandable. Volmae takes a little more convincing to persuade her that her plan of loading up Moya with as much tannot root as it can carry and zipping away is a poorly thought out one. Instead, Crichton offers her the much more insane plan of making weapons using tannot root and fighting the Peacekeepers, which Hybin endorses and Volmae signs up for.

Negotiation by means of explosive urination.
Having set the denizens of Skyara on a suicidal course for confrontation with the Peacekeepers, the crew of Moya return to their ship. Aeryn, exercising her freshly acquired medical skills removes the worm from Crichton. One question that pops to mind at this point is why Zhaan doesn't perform this procedure? Aeryn has demonstrated some skills in basic science, but she's still an amateur who was pressed into service by exigent circumstances. Zhaan, on the other hand, is an expert in this area. Having Aeryn do the work is more or less like having an EMT perform surgery when you have a surgeon on hand. EMTs are good at what they do, but when you have the expert you go with that option unless there's some compelling reason not to. In the course of her work, Aeryn expresses the opinion that she is not a scientist, but that she is, inf fact, superior to the other members of the crew.

And what is Zhaan doing while Aeryn is performing shuttle bay surgery? She's talking to D'Argo about his dreams. It seems that D'Argo harbored two dreams before his incarceration. In the first he was a warrior performing deeds worthy of memorializing in song. In the other he was a family man with a wife and children living a simple life. D'Argo confesses that Skyara was so attractive to him because he thought he might find a way to fulfill the second dream there. D'Argo also expresses that while on Skyara he felt an attraction for Zhaan, which she states that she would have reciprocated. She also consoles him saying that his dreams are not out of his reach. The interesting subtext here is that unknown to Zhaan or any of the other members of Moya's crew D'Argo already had fulfilled one of these dreams before he was imprisoned, and he will essentially fulfill the other before the end of the series. As usual, this episode of Farscape ends on a reflective note, building the relationship between Zhaan and D'Argo.

Viewed in the correct order, Thank God It's Friday . . . Again is a strong link in the chain of episodes developing the individual characters of Moya's crew and their web of interrelationships. Coming on the heels of the actual time looping in Back and Back and Back to the Future the false time looping makes for an interesting thematic contrast. When viewed in the correct order the reappearance of the Peacekeepers after two episodes in which they were absent makes the revelation of their banners in Volmae's stockpiled tannot root an unexpected development. But the bizarre reorganized order in which they shows were aired throws all of these elements away. Because I, E.T. was shown after this episode, all of the character development in this episode and all the previous ones evaporates and the characters go from working together more and more closely to acting like they don't know each other at all. And all of the character development in this episode between D'Argo and Zhaan which is reflected in their close working relationship in PK Tech Girl is wasted, because PK Tech Girl was aired before this episode. In short, by airing the episodes out of order, the SyFy network executives decided to make the early parts of the show make no sense. Aired in proper order this is an interesting and entertaining episode. Aired out of order, it is far less so.

Previous episode reviewed: Back and Back and Back to the Future
Subsequent episode reviewed: PK Tech Girl

Previous episode reviewed (airdate order): PK Tech Girl
Subsequent episode reviewed (airdate order): I, E.T.

Farscape, Season 1     Farscape     Television Reviews     Home

Friday, May 20, 2011

Follow Friday - Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses

It's Friday again, which means it's time for Follow Friday. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow the Follow My Book Blog Friday Host (Parajunkee) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the Featured Blogger of the week - Ninja Girl from Ninja Girl Reads.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Circle time! It's circle time. Time for us to open up and share. Can you tell us FIVE quirky habits or things about you? We all have them . . .

1. I am ridiculously optimistic about my ability to get things done. As a result I usually take on more projects than I can possibly complete in a reasonable time frame. I know that I am too piled high with commitments already. And yet I continue to take on new ones. This may indicate that I am slightly insane. (By the way, sorry I have been so slow responding to your questions Logan, I will send you my answers soon. I promise).

2. I get so many periodicals (The Economist, National Geographic, Locus, Science News, Poets & Writers Magazine, Asimov's Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Realms of Fantasy, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) that it is a constant struggle to keep up with reading them quickly enough to leave time to pare down my mammoth mountain of books in my "to-read" stack.

3. This probably comes as no surprise to anyone who has read my blog, but I am ridiculously verbose when I write. This is unintentional. Every time I sit down to write something I fully intend to write something short and quick, but as I work at it I always find I have just one more thing I want to say, and then one more, and then another. And then I find that I have written have six more paragraphs than I thought I was going to write. I know - its a sickness.

4. I don't like pickles. Any time I order food that has pickles on it, I give them to my wife, who loves pickles. But if she's not with me I will eat the pickle myself. At McDonalds, for example, I will take the pickles off of their burgers and eat them separately (so as not to ruin the enjoyment of the burger with pickle flavor). I paid for the pickle. I'm not going to throw it away. I'm going to eat it even though I don't like it. I'm weird like that.

5. Even though I am a huge science fiction and fantasy fan, I don't believe in the supernatural. At all. I know this makes me kind of a downer, but I simply don't believe that there are spirits living in your attic or there are angels guiding your destiny. I don't believe people have telepathic or telekinetic powers. I think con artists who claim to be able to contact the "other side" like John Edwards and Sylvia Brown are vile boils on the ass of humanity. I think the best way to tell of a self-professed psychic is lying is to check to see if their lips are moving. I really don't believe that there are sexy shirtless vampires brooding over their lost humanity and wondering whether to ask you to be their girlfriend. Sorry.

Go to previous Follow Friday: Seventeen Is a Prime Number
Go to subsequent Follow Friday: Does Anyone Else Remember the Song "Nineteen"?

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

30 Days of Genre - What Is Your Favorite Couple in a Genre Novel?

Beren and Lúthien

Once again, this was a difficult selection for me, mostly because couples are often more or less a tangential element of many of the books that I read. Anyone who has read through any of my reviews and paid attention to which books I am reading and reviewing should have picked up that I don't spend a lot of time reading books in the paranormal romance subgenre, or in any kind of genre that could be described as "romance" at all. In most cases, the couples that do show up are a secondary plot in any story I typically read.

This is not to say that there are no couples, and no romance. On the contrary, fantasy fiction is littered with couples. The only problem is that most of the couples are not the point of the story, and their romance, though of critical importance to the characters themselves, is simply not all that compelling a part of the books in which they inhabit. I point as an example to the romance between Dorian Hawkmoon and Yisselda in Michael Moorcock's Hawkmoon and Count Brass series. Though it is clearly of great importance to both characters, and serves to cement the alliance between Hawkmoon and Count Brass, the actual shown interaction between the characters in the books is fairly minimal. Similarly, the romance between John Carter and Dejah Thoris, even though it spans many books in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series and drives much of John Carter's actions, is mostly off-screen (and I don't even want to know how a human manages to reproduce with a woman whose species lays eggs).

And the problem I have with both the Hawkmoon/Yisselda and Carter/Thoris stories is that they are more or less one directional: the heroic warrior comes to the rescue of the damsel in distress. And then comes to her rescue again. And then goes out to defeat the villains that threaten their shared home while she stays behind and waits for his return. A couple more to my liking would be Morgan and Raederle from the Riddle-Master of Hed series by Patricia A. McKillip, as when Morgan goes missing Raederle sets out to find him, and even takes the role of protector through part of Heir of Sea and Fire (even though she is mistaken about who she is protecting from whom). But Morgan and Raederle don't even meet until the end of the second book in the trilogy, even though they are betrothed to one another from the outset of the first book. And it is hard for me to pick a couple that got together as the result of a promise made concerning a riddle contest as my favorite couple. I even considered picking Legolas and Gimli as my favorite couple, as their long-running competition over who has killed the most orcs is a classic of fantasy literature.

But even the convivial banter of Legolas and Gimli cannot compete with J.R.R. Tolkien's great romantic couple Beren Erchamion and Lúthien Tinúviel. Even their names reflect their shared history - Tinúviel, which means "Daughter of Twilight", is the name Beren used for Luthien when he saw her dance from a distance and did not know who she was. (Okay, let's set aside the stalkerish aspects of Beren repeatedly spying on Luthien dancing). Erchamion means "the One-Handed", a condition that resulted from the trials Beren and Luthien faced to be with one another. This is a couple that would literally go into Hell and face down the Devil in order to be with one another.

The obstacle to Beren and Lúthien's love is, as usual, her father. Actually, her father and her mother. Lúthien was an elven princess - the daughter of Elu Thingol, the King of Doriath, King of the Sindar, and High-King of Beleriand. However, Thingol was the junior partner in his marriage. His wife, and Lúthien's mother, was Melian the Maia, making her literally the equivalent of an angel. So Lúthien is the daughter of one of the most powerful kings of the elves and his angel queen. And who is Beren? Well, his father was Barahir, a king among men, but when Beren was young his father's kingdom was destroyed by Morgoth's forces, forcing Barahir, Beren, and a handful of followers to live as outlaws, until eventually Morgoth hunted them down and killed all save for Beren. Beren then took up living in the wilderness with animals as companions. Eventually Beren finds his way into Doriath, overcoming the barrier of enchantment that Melian had placed around it to keep everyone not specifically permitted by Thingol from entering the kingdom. So, not only is Beren a man and a homeless vagabond, he's also a trespasser. Beren falls in love with Lúthien on sight, and eventually, after running away from him a few times, Lúthien falls in love with Beren. They strike up a clandestine relationship, which only serves to annoy Thingol even more when he finds out about them.

So what does Thingol do? He tells Beren that he can only marry Lúthien if he gets the Silmarils from Morgoroth's crown. It is something of an understatement to say that this is a fairly high bar. And now, a digression for those who have not read The Silmarillion:

In the beginning of time Eru the One created the Valar, who are sort of super angels, and the Maiar, who are more mundane angels, and then set them about helping him create the world (with music). Melkor was the most powerful of all the Valar and decided he didn't like Eru's music and wanted to create his own instead. This act of rebellion continued after the world was made as Melkor and those Maiar who had joined him sought to destroy what the other made. Anyone who is familiar with Paradise Lost should recognize Melkor as filling in for Lucifer. When the Valar set up great lamps on either side of the world to light it, Melkor knocked them down. So the Valar first waged war upon Melkor and captured him and chained him up for three ages. Later they caused to gigantic trees to grow, one with golden fruit and one with silver fruit that both shone to light the world. These were the Silma trees. After the elves were born and journeyed at the invitation of the Valar to the Undying Lands, the elf Fëanor, who was the greatest smith to ever live, crafted three jewels that captured light from the Silma trees, which became known as the Silmarils.

Melkor was eventually paroled and released after he begged for forgiveness. But Melkor still sought to darken the world, and with a great spider spirit of darkness named Ungoliant he killed the two trees, killed Fëanor's father Finwe, and stole the Silmarils before fleeing to his fortress Angband in Middle-Earth. The Valar caused two fruits to be born from the dying trees and set them in the heavens as the sun and the moon, and Feanor vowed vengeance, leading a host of elves back to Middle-Earth, an act the Valar forbade. The elves renamed Melkor, calling him Morgoth, the "Dark Enemy of the World" and went to wage war upon him despite being told they would never be allowed to return to the Undying Lands and could expect no help from the Valar. Morgoth put the Silmarils into an iron crown and styled himself ruler of Middle-Earth, creating orcs, trolls, werewolves, vampires, and dragons to fight his wars, and aided by the many exiled Maia who had rallied to his side, including the fire-spirits, also called Balrogs. Much of The Silmarillion details the war between the elves and Morgoth, with battles given names like the Battle Under the Stars, the Battle of Sudden Flame, and the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. The elves eventually came to call their war against Morgoth "The Long Defeat".

And thus ends the digression. In short, what Thingol told Beren was that he could marry Lúthien if he fought his way into the fortress of the world's equivalent of Lucifer and seized some gemstones that vast armies of elves had been waging war for thousands of years to obtain. And Beren set out to do just that, getting himself captured by Sauron, the Lord of the Werewolves, and imprisoned in his tower. And Lúthien, not content to sit at home and wait for him, set out to help him do it. Lúthien, in fact, accomplishes a feat of such magnitude that it almost defied belief. Assisting her the great wolfhound Huan defeated werewolf after werewolf, finally defeating Draugluin, the father of all werewolves. Finally, Sauron (and yes, this is that Sauron) transformed himself into a massive werewolf and attacked the pair, whereupon Lúthien dazed him with a blow allowing Huan to grapple with Sauron and eventually best him. And Lúthien then sends him away after compelling him to turn over the keys to his tower to her. When reading the Lord of the Rings, always remember that Sauron was once defeated by an elven princess aided by a wolfhound.*

But that is only the prologue for Beren and Lúthien. They still had to get into Angband and steal the Silamrils from Morgoth's crown. But first they had to fight off disgruntled other suitors for Lúthien's hand, a battle in which Beren was killed and brought back to life by Lúthien's love. Lúthien disguised herself as the vampire Thuringwethil and Beren as the previously defeated Druagluin and went to the gates of Angband. Trying to get in, they were confronted by Carcharoth, the mightiest werewolf, but Lúthien called upon her Maia heritage and stunned him into sleep. Eventually they made their way into Morgoth's own throne room, but he was not fooled by their disguises, and Lúthien offered to sing for him. Overcome by lust, he agreed, and her singing put everyone to sleep, and she beguiled Morgoth himself. Beren pried one Silmaril loose, but his knife broke when he tried to get ;a second, injuring Morgoth and waking him up.

While fleeing Angband, the couple were confronted yet again by Carcharoth, and in an attempt to use the Silmaril's power to fend off the werewolf, Beren has his hand bitten off (and loses the Silmaril in the process as Carcharoth swallows it, and its light burns the werewolf from the inside driving it insane with agony). Poisoned by Carcharoth's venomous fangs, Beren lays dying in Lúthien's arms before the eagles show up and save them, taking them back to Doriath. Beren is healed and the couple go to Thingol, who asks if Beren has the Silmaril. And then Beren delivers one of the best lines in Tolkien's work, stating that the gem is in his hand. A hand that happens to be in the stomach of a fearsome, insane werewolf rather than attached to his arm. Beren later participated in the hunting of Carcharoth along with Huan, Beleg, Mablung and Thingol himself. But Huan and Beren were killed in the hunt, with Huan using his last words to wish Beren farewell (Huan was permitted to speak only three times in his life). Lúthien laid down and died upon hearing of Beren's death, and they both went to the Halls of Mandos where Mandos took pity on them and restored them to life, but decreed that they would both thereafter die the death of men and go beyond the world.

As a side bit of trivia, and just to make things a little clearer as to where Tolkien stood regarding this couple: On the joint tombstone he shares with his wife, J.R.R. Tolkien is identified as Beren, and Edith Tolkien is identified as Lúthien.

So, for being a couple that overcame death (twice), literally went into the very fortress of Lucifer and back, and confronted him and all of his lieutenants along the way in order to be together, Lúthien and Beren are my favorite couple.

*One of the most powerful elves to ever live (who also happened to be half-angel) and the greatest wolfhound in history to be sure, but still: Sauron got sent away with his tail between his legs by a single pair of adversaries who had already had to defeat dozens of werewolves he sent against them, including the father of all werewolves.

Go to Day 6: Who Is the Most Annoying Character?
Go to Day 8: What Is the Best Fan Soundtrack?

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

30 Days of Genre - Who Is the Most Annoying Character?

Harry Potter

I know. I'm almost certainly going to catch some flak for singling out every one's favorite boy wizard as the most annoying character in genre fiction. But I'm going to do it anyway. Because he deserves it.

I could have picked someone like Sansa, from A Game of Thrones, with her simpering naivete. But the deluded princess character who believes in romantic knights and handsome princes is such a cliche that Sansa is almost not even a character so much as she is a caricature. Or I could have picked someone like the house elf Dobby, who is so annoying that even Gollum hates him. And although Dobby is a truly annoying character, he, like Gurgi from the Chronicles of Prydain, is once again just another example of a recurring character type - the comic relief sidekick. Based solely on reputation I could have picked Bella from the Twilight books, but the only problem there is that I haven't actually read them, and I refuse to include characters, locations, or scenes from books that I have not read in my 30 Days of Genre selections.

And I'm not picking Harry Potter because of annoyance at the enormous popularity of J.K. Rowling's books. As far as I am concerned, the more books an author sells the better. No, I am picking Harry Potter because he's an obnoxious lazy jock. Is Harry smart? No. Hermione is. Is Harry studious? Nope, Hermione again. Is Harry at least naturally talented at academics? Not really. He's decent at defense against the dark arts magic, but in every other category, Hermione outshines him. Who solves the problems? Almost every time it is Hermione. Whenever there is heavy lifting to be done, almost every time it is done by Hermione, and on the rare occasions when it isn't, it is usually done by some other character while Harry stands around gawking. And what is Harry good at? Well, he has a natural talent for broom-riding and is thus drafted into being the star player on the Gryffindor quidditch team. Potter, without most people knowing it, is a stereotypical dumb jock. Not only that, he's a wealthy dumb jock who dates a girl he doesn't really like using her just to get some sort of petty revenge when his two best friends strike up a relationship.

And people fawn over him in the books. He's the boy who lived after all. But this just makes him more annoying, since every part of his character that is not a lazy dumb and mostly thoughtless jock is a tired cliche. Harry Potter is the chosen one. Why? Because he is prophesied to be the chosen one. One would think that all the people around Potter would notice that he's pretty much just a dopey teenage athlete bumming around school with nothing in particular to recommend him as anything special. Even so, Dumbledore takes Potter under his wing and makes him into the Headmaster's pet, which makes him an even more annoying character (compounded by the fact that Dumbledore is a very annoying character in his own right). And all this based more or less on an accident of genetics and random prophecy.

So for being the lazy, indolent, and thoughtless jock who stumbled undeservedly into being treated like a hero, Harry Potter gets my vote as the most annoying character in genre fiction.

Go to Day 5: What Character Do You Feel You Are Most Like (or Wish You Were)?
Go to Day 7: What Is Your Favorite Couple in a Genre Novel?

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Event - Nevada Rose Book Release Party

So where will I be this Thursday at 8:00 PM? I'll be in New York attending the book release of Nevada Rose by Marc McAndrews (the Facebook page for Marc McAndrews Photography can be found here) at Bubby's located at 1 Main Street in Brooklyn. Julia Haltigan and Amber Martin will be performing, and both Dennis Hof (the owner of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch featured on HBO's Cathouse series) and Mika Tan are scheduled to attend. You can get tickets here if you want to attend, although I have no idea how many are still available.

The book Nevada Rose is a photographic journey across rural Nevada that takes a long look at the two dozen or so legal brothels that dot its landscape. I have not yet seen the completed book, but the portions I have seen look beautiful. The best description I can give based upon what I know is that it captures the last vestiges of the Old West that have been crossed with the gaudy glitter of the legal sex industry. The book features many of the women who ply their trade selling sex in the hinterlands of Nevada among them the aforementioned Mika Tan (who I will note has since retired from working at the Bunny Ranch), but also Brooke Taylor, Maya Love, Camryn Cross, and Bunny Love. Not content with merely showing the obvious side of the brothel industry in Nevada, Marc also turned his camera on the other people who make the brothels function - cashiers, cooks, drivers, and cleaning crew among others, giving a much grittier and comprehensive view of the legal sex industry. The book has been reviewed in Publisher's Weekly, Working Class Magazine, City Arts, and Interview Magazine. Once I get my copy I am certainly going to review it as well.

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Monday, May 9, 2011

Review - Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff

Short review: Joyriding sightseers crash into the jungle. Most die. Survivors aren't harmed by natives, don't lose limbs to gangrene, don't have to live off the land.

The Gremlin Special
Crashes into the jungle
Rescuers come soon

Disclosure: I received this book as an Advance Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: There is a tendency to view major world-spanning events like World War II as a macroscopic clash of civilizations as nations assemble their resources and vast fleets of ships, airplanes, and armored vehicles are arrayed against one another in epic ranks of steel and destruction. But the reality is that a vast world-spanning event is really a multitude of small, personal stories involving people living in some obscure corner of the world doing nothing more than going about their daily lives. And Lost in Shangri-La drives this point home with a mostly forgotten story about survival in the jungles of New Guinea that sparked a media sensation in 1945 during the waning months of World War II.

The story, in a nutshell, involves a group of off-duty U.S. Army Air Corps technical support personnel, including a small contingent of female personnel (in the nomenclature of World War II, these were "WAC"s, because they were part of the Women's Army Corps) who decide to take a day trip to gawk from the windows of an airplane at some natives living in an isolated valley. To get to this isolated valley requires flying in a C-47 dubbed the "Gremlin Special" at high altitude through dangerously treacherous mountain terrain with unpredictable winds. Due to a collection of poor decisions by the commander of the joyride combined with the lousy flying conditions, the plane crashes, killing most of those on board. The survivors are badly injured and must deal with inhospitable jungle and dangerous natives while a rescue effort is mounted by the U.S. Army. After the survivors endure many trials and tribulations among the stone age natives, the U.S. Army manages to get them back to civilization. Despite the subtitle of the book that includes the phrase "a plane crash into the stone age", the survivors are located so quickly, and air drops of supplies established so swiftly, that it really should have been called "a plane crash into lots of airlifted goodies".

Well, sort of. One of the interesting things about the book is just how a story that is generally as bland as the historical events detailed in its pages managed to become a major media event in a world still wracked with war. The whole book is filled with explanations of what might have happened that would have been bad for the survivors, but it turns out didn't actually happen. After they crash, Zuckoff describes how difficult it would be to locate the survivors under the jungle canopy, but they find a clearing and get located within a couple days. Zuckoff writes about how they might have been threatened by the warlike natives, but the natives turn out to be welcoming and friendly. Zuckoff writes about how the survivors' infected and gangrenous wounds might have resulted in amputation of the affected limbs or even death if medical help didn't arrive in time, but then medical help arrives in time. Zuckoff describes how dangerous the parachute jumps of the rescuing party would be, but then everyone lands safely. Zuckoff details everything that could go wrong with the plan to extract the survivors from the jungle, but then everything goes well and everyone gets home safely. Over and over, the repeated theme of the book is just how dangerous things are for the survivors, but then everything turns out fine.

But what is not really dealt with much in the book is the openly racist attitudes of the Americans, and the racist and sexist overtones of the media coverage. Zuckoff deals squarely with the racist coverage with respect to the Filipino paratroopers sent on the rescue mission. But the racism inherent in the American attitudes towards the natives is only given a moderately passing acknowledgement. And the fact that it appears that it became a huge media story almost solely based upon the racist and sexist attitudes of the day. The fact that Margaret Hastings, the lone WAC survivor, was a pretty blond white woman almost alone in a trackless jungle surrounded by dark skinned natives who just stepped out of the stone ages and who were presumed by everyone to be savage headhunters. The obvious implication was the supposed danger this fair-haired damsel in distress was in from these horrible natives who clearly could only be barely restrained from raping her. Adding to the media hoopla were the lantern jawed blond heroes whose job it was to protect Hastings' virtue from these terrible savages, but it seems fairly clear that they are only important because of their supposed role as protectors. Never mind that from context it seems pretty apparent that Hastings (and many other WACs) were sexually active, the media clearly wanted to project the idea that Hastings was a demure virgin who only remained unmarried due to her intense patriotic devotion. Also never mind that most of the heavy lifting in the rescue effort was done by the Filipino paratroopers and medics, who the media completely ignored. The Filipino medics in particular who made the most dangerous jumps of all the rescuers in order to be closer to the survivors and be able to treat them more quickly, were shamefully ignored by the American media.

But this only highlights the confused relationship the media seems to have had with this story. Hastings became a media sensation because of her obvious attractiveness, but given the mores of the era, her chastity was assumed and impliedly threatened by supposedly barbaric natives, which enhanced the salacious nature of the story. Most of the rescuers were Filipino, and thus would have been considered barely more than barbarians themselves, and thus they were left out of the media reports entirely. The attitudes towards the natives of the inaptly named "Shangri-La" valley were similarly confused. In the minds of the the American aircrews and support personnel (and thus to the world at large) the valley was mistakenly assumed to be an idyllic, peaceful enclave of natives living primitive peaceful lives. But they were also at the same time described as giants, cannibals, headhunters, and worse. In short, if there was a stereotype that could be applied to the natives, then it was. Even if it contradicted some other randomly selected stereotype. But this is only given limited attention in the book, whereas the fact that the valley had actually been discovered years before by a man named Archbold, and that Archbold's expedition had had a deadly encounter with the natives. The shooting death of one of the natives by the Archbold expedition is used in the book to provide some tension, as Zuckoff implies that the inhabitants of "Shangri-La" might have been impelled to seek revenge for this killing, but like all such dire foreshadowings in the book, this does not actually result in any additional difficulties for the stranded survivors.

Except for the crash itself, which resulted in numerous deaths, the events surrounding the crash of the gremlin Special and the subsequent rescue of the survivors don't seem to be all that exciting. Zuckoff does a good job at cataloguing all of the various interesting backgrounds of the people involved: the colorful colonel who organized the rescue effort, the paratrooper whose father was a guerilla leader in the Philippines, the brave and committed Filipino paratroopers who followed him into the jungle on the rescue mission, a filmmaker who was a former actor and petty jewel thief who parachutes into the jungle drunk, and of course the survivors - a pretty independent-minded WAC, a tough and brave officer whose twin brother was killed in the crash, and a terribly injured sergeant who shoulders manfully on through his pain. But the problem is that the colorful and interesting characters are much more interesting than the story they inhabit. Some joyriders crashed, a few survived, the Army organized a successful rescue operation that went according to plan.

Although Zuckoff's treatment of the material is thorough and comprehensive, I was left wanting more. The story of the Gremlin Special survivors, despite Zuckoff's best efforts, is, save for the crash, a fairly uneventful tale of a successfully executed Army Air Corps operation. Even the natives, who were the subject to much contemporaneous speculation and fascination, turn out to be only moderately interesting insofar as they affect the story itself. More interesting is the story of the media reaction to the news, but here it seems that Zuckoff opted not to evaluate the media frenzy from a modern perspective, and instead simply chose to report the facts without editorial comment. There is purity in that approach, but it left me thinking there is another book to be written about this aspect of the media coverage in the 1940s that delves into the changed media and social landscape. On the whole, Lost in Shangri-La is a strong, informative piece of reporting, that relates in fine detail the facts surrounding the crash of the Gremlin Special, the interactions of the survivors, natives, and rescuers, and the events that resulted in bringing the three survivors to safety.

Mitchell Zuckoff     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Friday, May 6, 2011

30 Days of Genre - What Character Do You Feel You Are Most Like (or Wish You Were)?

Éomer, Third Lord and later King of the Riddermark

Once again, this is a question that was tough to come up with an answer to. First off, I am confining myself to genre fiction characters, because otherwise I would, like most other lawyers, be extolling the virtues of, and aspiring to be like the Harper Lee character Atticus Finch from her masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird. I suspect that if one took a survey of literary-minded lawyers one would find that for the bulk of them their personal hero would be the upright, honorable, and caring Finch. But as great a character as Atticus Finch is, he isn't in a genre novel, and the point of the 30 Days of Genre is to display our love for science fiction and fantasy. Sadly, bookish lawyers who hold down government jobs and practice tae kwon do on the side are in short supply in genre fiction.

Among the characters I considered were Larry Niven's creation Gil "the Arm" Hamilton, featured most prominently in The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton, Andre Norton's Murdoc Zern of The Zero Stone and Uncharted Stars, J.R.R. Tolkien's Boromir, featured in The Fellowship of the Ring, as well as Boromir's brother Faramir, found in the second two books of The Lord of the Rings. And though each of them have characteristics that I think I share, none of them quite fit me the way I think a character should. Gil is resourceful, honorable, and a government worker to boot, but his youthful exploits are far beyond anything that I would have ever actually done even if given the chance. I'm self-aware enough to know I am just not Belter material, even transplanted Belter material. Murdoc Zern, who I have mentioned in this series before, is also an honorable, resourceful individual who solves his problems with his wits, but he takes up a rootless and almost responsibility-free life as a free trader, which I could never do. Boromir and Faramir are, in some ways, two sides of one coin, forming a complete individual out of two distinctly flawed halves (Faramir less flawed in many ways than Boromir), but both have many admirable characteristics that I know I do not have, and at least a few flaws that I hope I do not have.

But Éomer, the Third Lord of the Riddermark, who appears in The Two Towers and The Return of the King, is a character that I would like to be like. In many ways I hope that I actually am like Éomer, and in other ways I fear that I am. He is bold, courageous, honorable, and loyal - all of which I hope to be. He is also headstrong, stubborn, rash, and at times foolhardy, which are attributes I fear I share with him. When King Théoden ignores his responsibilities to defend the Westfold, Éomer steps in against the King's wishes and takes it upon himself to perform this duty. When he encounters Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli as they traverse Rohan, he chooses to trust them, and later becomes close friends with Aragorn, and engages in a friendly rivalry with Gimli over the beauty of Galadriel. Despite the fact that Grima Wormtongue is the closest confidante of Théoden, Éomer opposes the honeyed tongued royal adviser's bad counsel. And Éomer does all of these things knowing that they will result in a sentence of exile, and could result in a sentence of death. I am a quick judge of character like Éomer. I hope that I am a good judge of character as well, as he appears to be. And although I have never had to make a decision that might result in my own exile, I am in a position where I often have to make unpopular decisions, so I can sympathize with Éomer on that score.

But there is a downside to the similarity. Éomer is a steadfast warrior who rallies to his uncle's side to defend Helm's Deep, joins him to confront Saruman, and later leads an eored of Rohirrim into the Battle of Pelennor Field. But when Théoden dies, and Éomer becomes king, Éomer also discovers what he believes to be his sister Eowyn's dead body on the field of battle.

'Éowyn, Éowyn!' he cried at last: 'Éowyn, how come you here? What madness or devilry is this? Death, death, death! Death take us all!'

Then without taking counsel or waiting for the approach of the men of the City, he spurred headlong back to the front of the great host, and blew a horn, and cried aloud for the onset. Over the field rang his clear voice calling: 'Death! Ride, ride to ruin and the world's ending!'

And with that the host began to move. But the Rohirrim sang no more. Death they cried with one voice loud and terrible, and gathering speed like a great tide their battle swept about their fallen king and passed, roaring away southwards.

This is a noble scene, but it is also incredibly stupid and foolhardy. Éomer's rage at the apparent death of his sibling drives him to lead his host in a wild and uncontrolled charge, and this quickly gets them into trouble. Even though the men of Gondor sally from the city to try to support the Rohirrim, the forces of Mordor are able to keep them separate, and surround Éomer's men. When his men needed him to exercise good judgment, he throws caution and sense to the wind in favor of blind rage and a thirst for revenge. In short, when the mantle of authority falls upon Éomer's shoulders directly, he behaves in a reckless and unkingly manner. Éomer (and the Rohirrim) are only saved by the fortuitous outcome of Aragorn's long shot gamble to seek out the Paths of the Dead. Even though all is well that ends well in this case, Éomer's penchant for letting his emotions rule his judgment under stress is a trait I have been known to share. I'll just say that if someone ever hurt my wife or children, well, there would probably be some seriously rash actions taken on my part.

So, for all these reasons, I'm going to go with Éomer as the character I am most like.

Go to Day 4: What Is Your Guilty Pleasure Book?
Go to Day 6: Who Is the Most Annoying Character?

30 Days of Genre     Home

Follow Friday - Seventeen Is a Prime Number

It's Friday again, which means it's time for Follow Friday. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow the Follow My Book Blog Friday Host (Parajunkee) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the Featured Blogger of the week - Al at Magnet for Books.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Circle time! Time to share. What character in a book would you most like to be, what character in a book would you most like to date?

Today I think I'm going to pick Lazarus Long as the character I'd like to be, because who wouldn't want to be a nigh-immortal independent-minded curmudgeon who is so hyper-competent that he is basically good at anything he sets out to do? The only characteristic of his I'd drop is the creepy incest subplot with his mother that crops up in Time Enough for Love. Ick.

As far as who I would date, I'll pick either Leisha Camden from Beggars in Spain, the sleepless hyper-competent protagonist, or Tenar from The Tombs of Atuan. Maybe Raederle of An from Heir of Sea and Fire, the hyper-competent princess who sets about rescuing her chosen love. I believe I may have a thing for hyper-competent characters.

Go to previous Follow Friday: Louis the Sixteenth
Go to subsequent Follow Friday: Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses

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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Review - Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany

Short review: . . . the Kid returns to Bellona, meets people, has sex, writes, bums around, leaves and then . . .

Go to Bellona
Find the crazy people there
Then come back again

Full review: After writing Nova, Delany didn't publish any fiction for five years. After this hiatus, he produced Dhalgren, his most ambitious work, although, in my opinion, not his best. Dhalgren is a very distinctive work, and is probably one of the most polarizing in the science fiction genre, provoking reactions from love, to hate, to contempt.

The book's protagonist, unnamed in the beginning of the book, and known only as "The Kid" through the rest, seems to wander through the decayed remains of the fictional city of Bellona - supposedly situated in the middle of the United States, but cut off in some unexplained way from the rest of the country. In Bellona, the sun is huge and red, there are sometimes two moons, time seems to intermittently flow faster or slower than normal, and an array of odd people try to live in a city where nothing seems to work. Bellona appears to be cut off from outside contact by radio, telephone, or other methods, its only interaction with the outside world appears to be the handful of people who manage to find their way in or out of the city.

The Kid starts his journey outside the city, where he has sex with a random woman, tells her he has lost his name whereupon she bestows him an "optic chain" and promptly turns into a tree. He hitches a ride on a truck, finds the bridge to Bellona, meets a group of women leaving the city who give him an "orchid" (a bladed weapon worn on the wrist) and finds Tak, the unofficial gatekeeper to the city. He hesitantly engages in a homosexual liaison with Tak. And then the book gets surreal.

As one might guess, the book has a fair amount of sexual content, and much of it is pretty explicit. The Kid engages for much of the book in a three way sexual relationship with Lanya and Denny, but there are other sexual elements introduced, like an episode of group sex involving multiple members of the "Scorpions" gang (of which The Kid and Denny are members), and a single woman. While sexuality was touched upon in his previous works, Dhalgren marks Delany's push into the area of sex, gender, and sexuality as major themes in his books. Delany explores several sexual relationships- between the older Kid and young vulnerable Denny; between the older Tak and The Kid; between a young girl and her obsession with her own rapist; between the Scorpions and the women who surround them, and so on.

Dhalgren is a difficult books to understand. The Kid appears to be an unreliable narrator, and although his presence drives much of what story there is, he is mostly passive, drifting from situation to situation, getting lost, discovering new parts of the city, and interacting with a wildly disparate group of people. Everything that happens in Bellona has an odd, dreamlike qualify, and an air of unreality. There is the possibility that Bellona may not exist at all, and may only be a figment of The Kid's deranged mind.

Wandering through the city, The Kid comes across a commune that has taken up residence in a city park where he meets Lanya, who gives him a half-filled book: he writes in the unused pages of the book throughout the rest of the story, seemingly writing the story of the book he is in. He later stumbles into an apartment complex and befriends a family that seems to be in denial about the oddities of the city around them. Here, one finds a union of the normal and what would be unacceptable behavior - while the father of the family goes to a nonexistent job every day and the mother insists on maintaining a normal lifestyle with family dinners, their teenage daughter has been raped by George Harrison (not the Beatle, a character in the book who is a popular local figure, and known rapist), but has become fixated upon Harrison with a kind of puppy love. The Kid, while helping move the family from one apartment to another, witnesses the death of the family's son, an event that has its own unreality about it.

The Kid later interacts with a local poet who tries to get him published by a local newspaper editor (and leader of what passes for Bellonan high society) named Calkins, and eventually drifts into joining and leading the Scorpions (some of whom had beaten him earlier in the novel), a sort of street gang that is made distinctive by wearing light projectors that, when turned on, surround them with images of various predatory and mythical creatures. In keeping with a general theme that The Kid lacks a defined self-identity, his light projector is faulty, displaying only an amorphous, shifting array of light when activated.

The Kid takes his Scorpion buddies to a party thrown in his honor by Calkins, where in a very odd sequence, the street gang interacts with the intellectual elite who reside in the city: a poet, an astronaut, a psychotherapist. The Kid is interviewed by a writer as part of this party. The novel then gets very self-referential, much of the last chapter is taken up with excerpts from the non-poetry that The Kid has written (the novel talks a lot about The Kid writing poetry, but you never see any of the actual poetry), until eventually, the last unfinished sentence seems to bend back to the first partial sentence in the book, making the novel circular in a manner that is almost certainly intentionally similar to Finnegan's Wake.

In some ways, the circular nature means that it doesn't matter where you start Dhalgren. You could pick it up, begin in chapter three, read to the end, and go back and read up to where you started. Though The Kid's path is linear as he drifts from situation to situation, the story references backwards and forwards so often that reading it in this way probably wouldn't change a reader's understanding of the story much. In some ways, the story seems to suggest that The Kid has gone to Bellona before, left it, and then forgotten his experience - when he begins reading the portion of the notebook that was already filled when Lanya gave it to him, and it looks suspiciously similar to what The Kid has written, and the story that he has lived through - making one think that maybe the half-finished notebook was possibly half-finished by The Kid in a previous tour of Bellona. The Kid seems to be something of a cipher, almost without his own identity other than that which he drifts into and which the reader imposes.

As with much of Delany's later work, Dhalgren seems to be concerned heavily with culture, and the preservation of culture in the face of stress - even though Bellona is clearly a dying city, with fires raging out of control in some areas (but oddly, rarely seeming to actually consume anything), the "elite" of the city are cultural figures: poets, writers, newspaper publishers, and of course, The Kid, who spends much of the book reading or writing in his notebook, and Lanya, who is described as an artist (though she produces no visible art during the book). Even the Scorpions, with their flamboyant light projectors, fill in for sculpture and a kind of performance art in the city.

In the end, the novel poses numerous questions, and steadfastly refuses to answer them. Is Bellona real? If it is, why is it cut off from the rest of the world? Is The Kid merely insane? Who is The Kid to begin with? Why does he go to Bellona, and why does he leave? Why does anyone go to Bellona? Are they seeking a sort of hippie freedom to live in a commune away from the workings of the world? Are they merely hedonists seeking pleasure unfettered by social mores? Are they criminals in an underworld where criminal behavior is acceptable? And so on and so forth. It is difficult to recommend Dhalgren as a book to be enjoyed, because some people will almost certainly not enjoy it. It is a significant book, and on that basis, a science fiction aficionado should definitely read it if for nothing else to explain why they dislike it. I enjoyed the book, but I can certainly see the elements that someone might not like, and as a result I give it a recommendation conditioned on the understanding that at least some people will absolutely hate the book.

1976 Locus Award Nominees
1976 Nebula Award Nominees

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