Monday, November 13, 2017

Read It and Watched It, November 2017

Today is Monday, November 13th, 2017.

Fall is moving along, although as often happens, we are only about halfway through the season and it has already started feeling like winter. The weekend before last, it rained all weekend, so we didn’t get out for a walk. This past weekend, we had a nice clear day on Saturday, so we got all the kids bundled into the car and headed out to a park so we could get a nice walk in. When we got there, we found that one of the six Potts children — and I won’t name names — had prepared for a walk in the just-above-freezing weather by getting in the car with a t-shirt and Crocs on. He didn’t even have socks. We had asked the three older kids, who we refer to as the “varsity team,” to carefully scrutinize the younger kids and make sure, as they got strapped into their seats, that they were prepared for the cold. That didn’t happen. So Grace and I had to just drive back home. Given that the rest of the day was already scheduled, this meant we just wouldn’t get a walk in. And then on Sunday, we had rain all day. So Grace and I spent most of the day yesterday glaring at each other and at the kids. Given that the days are already very short and the weather is uncertain, the opportunities to get a little exercise outdoors are very precious to me. We felt just a bit like the poor kid who got locked inside a closet in Ray Bradbury’s classic story “All Summer in a Day.”

Revisiting Reynolds

I finally finished Alastair Reynolds’ story collection Deep Navigation. I wrote a little bit in October about how I found the first few stories disappointing. I am pleased to report that they improve considerably as the book goes on.

“Feeling Rejected” is a very short send-up of the peer review process, in the form of an anonymous evaluation of a scientific paper. The story throws out some intriguing ideas about how we might one day detect and classify distant civilizations, while academic publishing is still apparently just as petty and cut-throat as it is now (some things never change).

“Stroboscopic” is a very fine story that speculates about how life might evolve orbiting a pulsar. I was struck by how much this story reminded me of Greg Egan’s work. This is my favorite story in the collection, although not by a wide margin.

“The Receivers” is an alternate history story in which World War I didn’t end, and on the British coast the giant parabolic acoustic mirrors, made from concrete, are still in use, as part of the early warning system for detecting enemy aircraft. They are on their way out, though, due to the invention of radar. This story is just a touch Lovecraftian; I’m reminded of Lovecraft’s story “The Music of Erich Zann.” Reynolds does an excellent job here invoking the culture of an exhausted Britain in which there was not break between wars.

“Bird Land Six” is set in the Antarctic and is a bit evocative of John W. Campbell’s famous story “Who Goes There” — not in any plot particulars, per se, but in the setting and style. It is the type of story that also would have made a good episode of The X-Files.

I’ll briefly mention a few others — “The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice” reads like it is part of the Revelation Space universe. “Viper” and “Tiger, Burning” both combine space opera and law enforcement procedural to one degree or another. They are good reminders that Reynolds always seems to have fun with any kind of police procedural set in space.

In October I wrote “So far, it is confirming my initial guess — that this collection represents the bottom of the barrel of Reynolds’ output, and is for dedicated fans only.” I was wrong. The initial stories are weak, but at least a half-dozen of the remaining stories are quite strong and some of them are really excellent. So I recommend this collection for anyone who enjoys Reynolds’ other novels and stories. Just keep in mind that they are uneven in quality.

God of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Way back when I was a kid, in the twentieth century, I remember taking books about Norse mythology out of the McCord Memorial Library in North East, Pennsylvania. I am not sure I can remember the titles, but one of them was probably Norse Gods and Giants by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire. This book has been reissued several times. We have a copy of the 2005 version, published by New York Review Books, now called d’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths.

Sam has already read it, and I’ve previously read the kids some other material on Norse myths, but this book is much easier for them to enjoy. It includes fantastic drawings. It’s really striking to notice how many bits and pieces of the Norse myths were adopted by a wide variety of modern fantasy writers, from Tolkien to Donaldson.

In related news, a couple of Fridays ago I took my daughter Veronica, age 13, to see Thor:Ragnarok. We did something we very rarely do — went to see a movie on opening night. I expected that a late showing of a brand-new superhero movie on a Friday night would be packed with young people, and rowdy. It was packed, but the audience was silent. I was a little puzzled. Do people never laugh out loud at funny scenes anymore, or applaud when a villain is defeated? I’m not talking about side conversations — that’s always annoying. I’m talking about audible reaction to the film. There seemed to be none at all.

I found this especially strange because Thor:Ragnarok is quite funny. In fact, the humor saves the movie from collapsing under its self-importance. The movie has a lot of plot, with a big prophecy and ominous events happening left and right, leading up to Ragnarok itself — literally the Norse apocalypse. Without jokes, you have something like the ponderous dullness of M. Night Shyamalan’s Avatar. With them, you have a movie that is basically a big day-glo party.

The Norse mythology around Thor is dark and complex and weird. Odin sacrifices one of his own eyes, and hangs himself from a branch of Yggdrasil. Loki is so dedicated to some of his pranks that he manages to get himself, in the form of a horse, impregnated by another horse, giving birth to an eight-legged horse. The stories overlap, and conflict, and come to us from various ancient sources.

d’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths keeps some of this, while simplifying it so that it is comprehensible to young readers. The Marvel Cinematic Universe throws out just about all of this complexity, and the parts it doesn’t throw out completely, it rearranges into simpler structures. In the original Norse myths, there is no Hela, Goddess of Death. Thor doesn’t have an older sister. But there’s no good reason Marvel can’t invent such a character — there are no copyrights to contend with. And so we are given Hela, Goddess of Death.

There are many things to like about this movie. Just to mention a few: Chris Hemsworth is terrific as the energetic but slightly dim-witted Thor. Cate Blanchett gets to play a completely unapologetic villain, Hela, and she does a great job being nasty; she was also terrific as the wicked stepmother in Cinderella. There’s a character known as “Scrapper 142” or simply “Valkyrie,” an actual Valkyrie, played by Tessa Thompson. I had not previously imagined Valkyries putting away quite as much hard liquor as she does, but it’s a great portrayal. Jeff Goldblum also does a hilarious job playing… well, Jeff Goldblum. And I would be remiss if I didn’t give a special shout-out to Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk. Thor has some wonderful “bromance” scenes with both Banner and Hulk.

I have seen very few of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films (Thor: Ragnarok is — wow! — the seventeenth film in this series). I’ve seen none of the Iron Man movies, none of the earlier Thor movies, no Captain America, and no Avengers films. In fact, I can barely keep track of which comic characters are DC, and which are Marvel; my kids are always correcting me. Honestly, though — although it would have been nice to know more of Banner’s back-story, since the last time I watched the Hulk, he was played by Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. it didn’t seem to matter much at all, though. Veronica and I had a good time anyway, and I think we picked up just about everything we needed to know on the fly. I think it’s also worth noting that this is one of the best-reviewed of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, and the best-reviewed of the Thor films. So it seems that maybe we haven’t missed all that much by not seeing the earlier movies.

I have seen Guardians of the Galaxy (the first one), and Doctor Strange. The good Doctor makes an appearance, and it’s pretty funny, but far from essential. So even if you have seen none of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, I still recommend Thor:Ragnarok. It slows down a little in the middle of the movie, and the CGI can become a little tedious (although the rendering of Surtur, the fire demon, involves some of the best computer animation of fire that I’ve ever seen). For the most part it moves along really well, it has great (if occasionally ridiculous) fight scenes, terrific costumes, and will not leave you scratching your head over any deep, dark puzzles or waking up with nightmares. In the dark days of late 2017, that’s not nothing.

Ypsilanti, Michigan
November 13th, 2017

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 (Watched It, Late October 2017)

Today is Tuesday, October 24th, 2017.

Warning: this review of Blade Runner 2049 contains spoilers.

Wet leaves are beginning to pile up, and after a brilliant fall day on Sunday, the week is shaping up to be wet, windy, and gray. I still haven’t entirely shaken this lingering sinus infection and cough, although it is almost gone.

Grace and I finally got a chance to go see the new Blade Runner movie, dubbed Blade Runner 2049. We had to sneak out to see a late show, starting at 11:20 p.m. After a half-hour of trailers, and the movie itself, which is 2 hours and 43 minutes long, we didn’t get back home until almost 3 a.m. (I’m old enough to remember when long films, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is of similar length, had intermissions. Does anyone make long films with intermissions any more? Perhaps they should).

Even fortifying ourselves with hot tea, we found ourselves having a little difficulty staying focused through the last hour of the film, tending to drift into a trance-like state in which we knew that we weren’t following details as well as we could. But even in this state, we found some scenes genuinely disturbing, and had difficulty getting to sleep afterwards. So I don’t recommend that you see a late, late showing of the movie.

We first thought that our failure to remain focused was mostly the lateness of the hour, but I went to see another showing after work yesterday, while Grace and the kids were out of town; I was wide awake. And again, I felt myself zoning out a bit, and at the same points in the film. And again, I found a couple of the scenes genuinely disturbing, although I didn’t have to try to go to sleep immediately afterwards. Grace has vouchsafed to me that she continues to have difficulty sleeping since seeing the film. We both feel, to use the contemporary phrase without irony, a bit “triggered.”

The original Blade Runner is an iconic and hugely influential movie, a cult classic. Like a lot of cult classics, it is also a bit of a storytelling failure. The dystopian future it portrays, with logos of Pan Am and Atari and other dead corporations, is now in retrospect an alternate future. In this alternate future of the new film, we still have Pan Am and Atari logos, and even references to the former Soviet Union. (These are slotted in alongside obvious paid product placements for Johnnie Walker whisky in “futuristic” square bottles, and Sony electronic products that you can’t buy). The visual world-building achieved in Blade Runner is some of the best and most convincing ever achieved in science fiction cinema, if not the best, but the new film gives it a run for its money.

The noir elements in the original Blade Runner are gorgeous, especially in the cuts that eliminated the mawkish, irritating voiceover. How I despised that voice-over when I saw the film in the theater! In fact, it was Blade Runner that led me to track down and watch a number of old noir films. As in those noir films such as He Walked By Night, atmosphere and menace are everything. Character development and plot can, and often do, fall by the wayside a bit.

Blade Runner, while retaining a slow and atmosphereic mood throughout, actually devolves into a science fiction horror film reminiscent of some of the worst work of Roger Corman, in films such as Galaxy of Terror. The cameras linger on greasy, bloody, rain-drenched faces, eyeballs floating in tanks, skulls being crushed, eyeballs being gouged out, blood spraying, bones breaking, and nails stabbing through hands. The climax is a seemingly interminable cat-and-mouse chase scene with plenty of cheap jump scares. The romance, between Deckard and Rachael, is portrayed darkly, with little chemistry, and a scene that feels in 2017 like we are watching a date rape; it raises the question of whether a slave, fleeing her master and evading the police by sleeping with a cop, has the option not to consent to sex. In the Director’s Cut there is no happy, or even happier, ending; no one is really redeemed, except when their hands are washed clean by death.

And yet, the original is still a fascinating, messy film, bringing up more questions than it answers, and giving generations of film students a chance to bring their own critical perspectives to slice and dice it.

What’s New

Blade Runner 2049 is set in a world that is even more decrepit and damaged and locked-down. It takes many of the most iconic settings and visuals of the original and references them again, but nearly in isolation. The world of this film is paradoxically closer to the world described in Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, while the story is entirely extrapolated, not adapted from anything Dick wrote — at least, not in the novel.

While the world Blade Runner was cluttered and filthy, the relative simplicity and cleanliness of many of the scenes in this new sequel means that the symbolic meaning is often much more clearly present in the foreground, the characters on a clean canvas among the radioactive dust. The new film is even slower than the original, and even slower than director Denis Villeneuve’s majestic Arrival, a better film.

Villeneuve in this movie sets up a number of parallels and easter eggs and bread crumbs. To the extent that they work and the reader can follow them, the movie succeeds. To the extent that they don’t, and actions taken literally build up and become numbing, the movie fails. And so on the whole, the film is, like the original, a fascinating near-success, with elements of greatness.

The Performances

If there are any awards to hand out for this film, and I think there may be, they will be for the acting and the design aspects of the film, such as sets and costumes, not for the film as a whole. It will not win Best Picture.

Ryan Gosling is amazing in this film, and gives a very understated performance. His affect is so muted, most of the time, that when he betrays a feeling, through the smallest twitch of an eye or tilt of his head, we feel it. The three primary supporting actresses, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, and Robin Wright all turn in excellent performances as well. Hoeks as Luv is especially creepy and compelling.

I do feel the need to call out one performance that is memorable — but memorably bad. Jared Leto is certainly creepy as Wallace, with his cloudy eyes and strange line readings. He speaks slowly and emphatically like a preacher reading a bible lesson. I found it hard to convince myself, even temporarily, that he could be real, even in the movie’s world.

I’m not quite sure whether the actor or the director deserves more blame for his performance. In the original Blade Runner, Joe Turkel played Dr. Eldon Tyrell, who seemed very convincing as the affable but cold-blooded technocrat, living in his Egyptian pyramid, staying up late to manage his investments, blinking at the world through heavy trifocal glasses. It’s an odd affectation in a world where one of his suppliers grows eyes in tanks, perhaps indicating his moral blindness, and it is significant that Roy, who tells us “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” blinds Tyrell before killing him.

Blade Runner 2049 apparently runs with this theme, making Wallace completely blind, emphasizing the idea that he is the successor to the blinded Tyrell. Wallace can see the world only through technology. That’s also perhaps an interesting choice, but I dislike the way his visibly opaque eyes are made an object of horror. Blindness as object of horror, and blind person as psychopath, are products of lazy, low-effort screenwriting. Apparently with those contacts, the actor Leto really couldn’t see at all on the set. I guess that sounds impressive — what great lengths he went to for his art! But I can’t help but think of Alec Guiness playing the butler Bensonmum in Murder by Death. He didn’t need anything like that at all.

The Music

Before I dive into the story, I want to comment on the music, and its relationship to the music of the original. The original score, by Vangelis, remains one of my favorite examples of film music. It’s gorgeous, ethereal, and moving. It covers many moods and many styles, bringing in real instruments such as piano and saxophone, while returning to a series of motifs played on brassy synthesizers. I often listen to it on headphones just for the music, as I do with other great scores, such as Howard Shore’s extended scores for the Lord of the Rings films.

The new score gets the “brassy synthesizers” part right. It contains many little bits of sounds that are very reminiscent of the original film. But everything is amped up, and those synthesizer are now producing new sounds designed to shake your seats. There aren’t a lot of melodies, or even motifs; a lot of the new score consists of repetitive noodling, between the big “braaam” sounds that fill the theater when those incredible flying cars are landing. And honestly, with a full THX sound system running, those sounds get fatiguing.

What’s a “braaam” sound? See this article, subtitled “how a horn sound ate Hollywood.” Similar waveforms have been used recently in Transformers and District 9 and Inception and, and, and, and… and now Blade Runner 2049. This should tell you just about everything you need to know about how original and interesting the score seems in context, which is to say, “not very.” It works well as background sound, but I will not be purchasing the soundtrack album.

The Story

K, played by Ryan Gosling, doesn’t actually have a name but a serial number, KD6–3.7. He is Nexus–9 replicant, a product of the Wallace Corporation, a later version of the Nexus–6 replicants, made by the Tyrell Corporation, that Deckard struggles to kill in the original Blade Runner. The Nexus–6 replicants were an evolutionary improvement over previous models — like Steve Austin’s Six Million Dollar Man, better, faster, and stronger. But they threatened the status quo because they were capable of learning emotional responses, which could make them undetectable by the Voight-Kampff test. The Nexus–9 models have been created to be more obedient, but apparently they have their own problems — they are capable of developing disloyal feelings, and so must be rigorously and frequently tested, to verify that their emotional responses remain unchanged, “at baseline.”

As the story opens, K is dozing, his flying car on autopilot, traveling into the grim hinterlands, to investigate a lead about a missing Nexus–8, Sapper Morton. He finds an enormous, dour, grizzled man working to raise, in a plastic-tarped greenhouse, grubs that look like giant, bloated versions of the things you might find eating the roots of your lawn. A dead tree, anchored in place by cables, stands on the property. Morton is a former military medic, on earth illegally. In a brutal fight, K retires him, but not before Morton tells him that he is “happy scraping the shit, because you’ve never seen a miracle.”

Leaving the property, K notices a tiny flower left at the base of the tree. He investigates the property using his floating drone’s ground-penetrating radar. Buried beneath the dead tree is some kind of trunk. K reports in to his supervisor, Lieutenant Joshi, and heads back to police headquarters, to undergo his screening. Like the Voight-Kampff, it’s a test of reaction time and emotional response. But unlike the original test, K must repeat words spoken to him, rapid-fire. In this case, some of the words were taken from a verse in Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire:

And blood-black nothingness began to spin
A system of cells interlinked within
cells interlinked within cells interlinked
within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.

This is a beautiful, disturbing choice, and evocative of K’s artificial origin, as cells grown within the one “stem” of the Wallace corporation.

Howard Hawks defined a good movie as “three great scenes, no bad ones.” This early scene is one of a number of great scenes in Blade Runner 2049. K pases his test, and is granted his bonus for retiring a replicant.

In the Future, Even the Slaves Will Have Slaves

K is a slave, entirely beholden to Joshi; it is suggested in one scene that Joshi may have used him as her sexual plaything, and may wish to do so again. But intriguingly, K himself has a slave, of sorts, of his own: a holographic replica of a woman, Joi, another product of the Wallace corporation, designed to be his companion and to cater to his every emotional whim.

But Joi, though she seems sentient, is a computer program connected to a holographic projector, and can only exist inside K’s apartment, within range of the projector built into the ceiling. With his bonus, K buys her a gift: an “emanator,” a pocket-sized device, like a television remote control or cell phone. With the emanator, connected via antenna to the console in his apartment, K is able to carry Joi with him, and project her anywhere. She also apparently has some volition and control over her on/off switch, and is able to turn herself on and listen in on his conversations.

Meanwhile, the investigation continues. The buried trunk is dug up opened and inside is found a set of bones. The bones are those of a woman. Minutely examined, the bones give up their secrets — she died in childbirth, and tiny scrapes on her bones indicate that the child was rescued by Caesarean section. As the eye of the scanner zooms in, we find in her bones a tiny serial number. The woman was a replicant, and yet became pregnant. In the original novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Rachael mourned her sterility, and in this world, a fertile replicant is supposed to be entirely impossible.

K travels to the Wallace Corporation headquarters. The Wallace Corporateion retains the records of the Tyrell Corporation, although they are fragmentary, damaged thirty years earlier in an event called the “Blackout.” The Blackout, not explained in detail, destroyed almost all information stored “on drives,” and so was probably an electro-magnetic pulse caused by the detonation of a nuclear device that left Las Vegas a deserted ruin.

At Wallace headquarters, K meets Luv, Wallace’s female replica assistant, who takes an interest in him. We learn eventually that the replicant who became pregnant was Rachael, Deckard’s lover from the first movie, a replicant who didn’t know that she was a replicant, but who believed herself to be Tyrell’s niece.

A Pentacle of Jealousy and Violence

So, just to review, we now have Luv, Joi, and Joshi, all with an interest of some kind or another in K. We also meet sex worker Mariette, who looks a bit like Pris in the original movie, although she is ultimately revealed to be far kinder than Pris. Mariette is directed to investigate K by a shadowy female figure. And so K has to navigate a difficult path around four women of one sort or another, two apparently human, one clearly a replicant, and one something even more humble than a replicant.

K’s heart is clearly with the meekest and most giving of them all, Joi. Joi invites Mariette to collaborate with her on an evening of pleasure for K; as she has no body, she cannot touch him. But with Mariette “wearing” her projected image like a second skin, she can, in a way, make love to K. This is a spooky and beautiful scene, ground-breaking in its special effects, and ought to count as another of the film’s great scenes, although it will certainly provide plenty of fodder for debate in gender studies classes for generations to come.

For in its treatment of these female characters the film gets, frankly, quite dark and quite ugly. There’s a very disturbing scene, which feels gratuitous, misogynistic, and uninvited, even on a second viewing. Wallace, though blind, inspects a new model of replicant, while Luv looks on. The female replicant is unceremoniously dumped from a plastic bag, as Luv watches, shedding a tear as the newborn replicant, covered with some kind of protective orange pseudo-amniotic grease, gasps for her first breath in a quivering, terrorized heap.

Wallace talks about how, even brand-new, the “clay” — evoking Genesis — feels fear. Does Luv cry, I wonder, because she remembers that feeling of fear?

Wallace drones on about how he can’t create fertile replicants. And even as he refers to the new replicant as an “angel,” he kisses her on the mouth, and then with a scalpel viciously slices open her belly, opening her empty womb in symbolic imitation of Rachael’s Caesarean surgery, and leaving her to silently bleed to death, as Luv looks on impassively. Was this murder solely to terrorize her?

To Howard Hawks, a good director as “someone who doesn’t annoy you.” This scene is damned annoying. And although on my second viewing I was able to understand how the scene fits into the symbolic repetition of events, that doesn’t make it feel any more right.

In the original Blade Runner there is, to the best of my recollection, nary a blade to be found. But in the new one Villeneuve has taken the word “blade” literally and armed three characters with nasty little knives. Morton pulls a knife on K, but fails to do too much damage. Luv replicates Wallace’s attack on the unnamed female replicant twice, viciously slashing open Joshi’s belly, and she attempts the same move on K, kissing him and then slashing his belly, although she fails to kill K immediately. And the parallel nature of these scenes really don’t quite work without careful reflection; in the moment, the first still feels like something not just from a horror movie, but from a low-grade slasher film.

And days later, I still find myself wondering “why?” And if Wallace wanted to inspect the new product line, what was the result? Is Luv supposed to ship ’em, or pulp ’em?

Like the Corners of My Mind

As in Blade Runner, some of the key questions in the film turn on memories, and whether they are real, experienced naturally in real time, taken from someone else and implanted, or entirely synthesized and implanted. K is deceived, and this is one of the more brilliant, and complex, aspects of the screenplay. K retains a childhood memory — he owns a small wooden statue of a horse, inscribed on the base with a date.

K, knowing that he is a replicant who has spent his whole life in slavery, believes that this childhood memory is a fully synthetic implant. He relates it to Joshi, when she orders him to. But when K returns to Sapper Morton’s farm and he discovers the same date carved on the base of the dead tree, in memoriam to Rachael’s death day and the lost child’s birthday, he comes to suspect that the memory is real, and that it actually happened to him. Thus he believes then he must be the lost child, the “miracle.” Joi tells him that she knew he was special: “born, not made” (a reference to the Nicene Creed), and a “real boy” (a reference to Pinnochio). And when he discovers the horse statue exactly where he remembers putting it, many years earlier, he is both thrilled and terrified because it feels like confirmation of both his worst fear, and his most private hope.

But it isn’t to be. The viewer, before K, comes to understand that the implantation of the memory was part of a conspiracy, and that the sex worker Mariette knows of the memory. Is Mariette actually a replicant, working with the shadowy replicant uprising? Or a human collaborator? We don’t know for sure. And we don’t know for sure whether the memory was ever part of a real, lived human experience, or entirely manufactured. Later, K comes to understand that the memory is not his at all, and he has to give up the illusion that he was both terrified by, and longed to embrace.

Eventually, in the ruins of Las Vegas, we meet Deckard, the eponymous blade runner of the earlier film. Harrison Ford, with his star power, plays a relatively minor role in this film, and even when he speaks, he is extremely taciturn. He complements, but does not overshadow, Gosling’s role.

The Death of a Woman

There’s a lot going on in the film, and there are more great scenes. I’m not going to spool out the whole plot, but there are more disarming, unnerving, deeply Philip K. Dick-ian moments. K investigates the records of births from 30 years earlier, trying to find a clue as to the fate of Rachael’s child.

With electronic records destroyed in the Blackout, DNA records survive only on microfiche. K has to scan through the manually, relying on his superior replicant memory and pattern-matching to look for anomalies. This is actually ridiculous — a human genome contains approximately 3 billion base pairs. I did not count the letters on the microfiche pages, but let’s say that each can hold 100 lines by 100 columns, or about 10,000 characters, representing 5,000 base pairs. Six hundred thousand of these microfiche pages would be required to encode the full genome of a single person. But never mind — this implausible mixture of low tech and high tech is very, very Dickian.

Scanning the images rapidly, K discovers an anomaly — two records are duplicates, but one is for a boy, and one a girl. This is a medical impossibility, suggesting that a record of a deceased girl — she died of the fictional “Galatians syndrome” — was copied to create a record for a boy. K, with this information, comes to believe that he might be that boy, the replicant child — the “miracle” which could “break the world” and bring about, as Joshi warns him, a war, or a slaughter. But as with all clues in the film, we have to be wary of disinformation.

The reference to Galatians is a bread crumb. Galatians 1:6–9 reads (in the ESV text):

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.

This is a warning to K that he must beware of a false “angel” — and here it is significant that Wallace says to Luv “you really are the best angel,” and that in the climactic fight scene she tells K “I’m the best one!” But it’s also a warning about a “false gospel” — the implanted memory.

But there’s more in Galatians: it also tells us that two of the “fruits of the spirit” are — wait for it — joy, and love. But despite what Corinthians tells us, Luv is neither patient, nor kind, although Joi is. Here we have, in this world, a trick of perversity, in which a sex worker and a sex toy are more virtuous than love itself.

This is one of the best scenes in the film, but it gives you an even more special frisson if you know something of Philip K. Dick’s life story. Dick himself was a twin. He and his twin sister Jane were born six weeks early. Philip survived, and his twin sister died, only 41 days old. This experience profoundly influenced Philip. In his Exegesis, a sort of huge, free-form journal of philosophy and theology, Dick wrote:

The changing information which we experience as world is an unfolding narrative. It tells about the death of a woman. This woman, who died long ago, was one of the primordial twins. She was half of the divine syzygy. The purpose of the narrative is the recollection of her and of her death. The Mind does not wish to forget her. Thus the ratiocination of the Brain consists of a permanent record of her existence, and, if read, will be understood this way. All the information processed by the Brain — experienced by us as the arranging and rearranging of physical objects — is an attempt at this preservation of her; stones and rocks and sticks and amoebae are traces of her. The record of her existence and passing is ordered onto the meanest level of reality by the suffering Mind which is now alone.

This synecdoche — in which the events of Dick’s early life echo the unforlding theology and cosmology of his whole world — was everything to Dick, and influenced much of his writing.

This new story, also, is about the death of a woman — of the replicant Rachael, her bones organized neatly in the footlocker ossuary. The dim, noir-ish scenes shot inside the Wallace Corporation headquarters look as if they could have taken place in the massive funerary space of an Egyptian pyramid, or a Mayan ziggurat. But in Villeneuve’s disturbing portrayal, it’s not just about the memorialization of a woman, but about her near-complete erasure.

A Little Respect (Please)

In the film’s creepiest moment, another great scene, Deckard is tempted by Wallace with the restoration of his lover. It doesn’t quite make sense, given the loss of information from the Blackout, but Wallace has made a new Rachael. And suddenly she is there, walking out of the darkness, asking Harrison Ford “did you miss me?” and, miserably abasing herself before him, “don’t you love me?”

Ford is unnerved, as is the audience, because Sean Young did not appear as herself in the film. Her younger face was re-created, digitally, with stand-ins for her bodily movements and voice. Ford, the actor, and Deckard, character, possibly a replicant, has aged — but Rachael II has not, being a newly-made thing, forever Young. We don’t learn her age in the original movie, but in Dick’s book, Rachael is just 18. She is a carrot to motivate Deckard — tell us everything you know about the fate of the child, says Wallace, and we won’t take you off-world to torture you endlessly in some off-world Abu Ghraib, but instead, here! You can have your girlfriend back! But women aren’t allowed to grow old in Hollywood.

Deckard, wisely, is having none of it, and tells Wallace “her eyes were green.” This isn’t necessarily true — Sean Young had brown eyes in the original, while in an apparently continuity error, her eye on the Voigt-Kampff display apparatus appears green. (This world can’t even make the most basic facts easy). But Deckard knows that Rachael cannot come back and this new replicant can never be the Rachael he knew, and he also knows, or at least I hope he knows, that he is not his younger self, and so cannot have the same relationship with Rachael II.

Wallace knows this as well, because his Rachael II lacks the “miracle” of the original; she is sterile. Wallace knows he can’t create a fertile replicant, he believes, without studying the child. After Deckard rejects her, Luv, obeying the smallest nod from Wallace, immediately shoots Rachael II in the head.

This is another deeply disturbing move, the destruction of a commodity, not a person — echoing Wallace’s destruction of the unnamed female replicant, and echoed later by Luv’s casual, unnecessary destruction of the harmless Joi, just to torment K. To Wallace, one of his “angels” — an elevated being — is to him, despite his high-flown language, really no more of a person than one of his more debased, fully-electronic sex-toy creations.

Male Mothers

The film is also about the myth of male mothers, in which men wish to “steal valor” from mothers by claiming the ability to create life themselves. It’s an old, old trope. Athena sprang from the head of Zeus, after Zeus swallowed Metis and her unborn child. Metis was erased, as Rachael was erased, her child disappeared, but something more eventually came of them, imagined as a form of male motherhood.

Wallace didn’t erase Rachael the first time, as damaged records survive in the archives of the Tyrell Corporation, but he can do so now, and he wants her child, so that he can create new life from them, from his head — his relentless intelligence. Wallace wants to populate not just nine worlds with the Nexus–9, but to fill the space between the stars. He can’t do it by manufacturing replicants. They must be able to reproduce. This explains, perhaps, just a bit, his rage against the unnamed female replicant’s womb.

But K also imagines, led by his falsified memories, that he might be the miracle child, who holds the genetic key to replicant reproduction, and so in a sense the male matriarch of a future race of replicants. It’s not a comforting thought because he knows that if this is true, the authorities will want nothing more than to erase him utterly, leaving no trace of his existence, while Wallace will want nothing more than to dissect him. Either scenario is the end of K. But it would give his life meaning to have a mother, to be a “real boy,” to have a soul.

Instead, he is told by the resistance leader Freysa that he is not the miracle child. He is nearly undone by this loss. But he now knows that the child must be Ana, the woman who creates memories — and who gave him another bread crumb, when she told him that there was a little bit of herself in the memories that she creates. Ana, left in a literal bubble of sterility since childhood, is the miracle, who harbors the secret of replicant fertility. This leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Is she really immune-compromised, forced to live in “sterility?” Or was that also a protective lie? Was Ana really raised in the electronics reclamation facility with the other boys? Does she remember this? Or was that memory entirely falsified? And if it was, why were the records there destroyed, or was that a false bread crumb?

In a final act of disobedience — he has come a long way since his “baseline” — K delivers Deckard to Ana, and dies of Luv’s slash to his belly, the visceral repudiation of his hoped-for motherhood. Like all men, he must content himself as best he can, transcending his servile drone existence through the pursuit of love — Luv — whom he had to drown. With no Joi, and no love, K dies. But at least Deckard, date-rapist and absentee father, gets to meet his daughter. It’s not exactly a happy ending, but K does die free.

Other than That, How as the Play, Mrs. Lincoln?

This review on Vox makes an excellent point when it says “the film has big ideas, but not enough clarity around them.”

The themes in this film, unlike in Arrival, sag under the weight of the unrewarded slow movement, the preoccupation and even infatuation with the look of things (snow falling, holograms, the LA streets) that the original Blade Runner never indulged to such an obvious extent.

And in addition, Blade Runner 2049 fails the Howard Hawk test, because it does have bad scenes: bad, as in troubling, horrifying, and to me, not justifiable by their contribution to the larger story arc.

Wallace can’t manufacture replicants fast enough to keep up with demand, and yet he murders one with the sole aim, apparently, of setting up later scenes in the film. Rachael II apparently can’t be considered fit for any other purpose. It strains credibility, and reeks of the casual violence against women that make up slasher movies. Plenty of male replicants are killed, but they usually die quickly, double-tapped. I really didn’t need to see Luv drowned, in real-time, in a scene that seems to take forever. Not all the death scenes are horrible, or feel gratuitous — Joshi dies bravely. But too many of the deaths — and there are a lot of them — feel like torture.

Blade Runner 2049 does have at least three great scenes, and perhaps more, and its world is a beautiful and horrifying world. But it takes too long to tell its story.

Sean Young apparently participated in the making of the film, in a way. Her name is in the credits. But as I watch, I can’t help but wonder how the actress, who is now 57 years old (while Harrison Ford is 75), might feel upon watching the finished film. Is she troubled by the way her character’s story emerges, and how it is revealed that her character died and was nearly erased, deliberately, for the sake of her child?

Deckard can barely bring himself to speak Rachael’s name; he does not do so until very late in the film. Although it is touching, perhaps, to see that he has kept her picture.

How would Young feel, watching, as Rachael is made to reappear, reanimated, again as a slave, to plead for Deckard’s love, only to be shot in the head, killed instantly, execution-style, erased again, leaving only the faint hope that her name might be remembered again, by insurgent replicants and her “miracle” daughter, in a sequel?

Let’s remember that this is fiction, and the screenwriters and producers have had 35 years to come up with something better to do with Rachael, whose “love scenes” with Deckard in the original remain painfully uncomfortable to watch. Was this really the best they could do?

And I wonder, as we all get worked up about the Harvey Weinstein story and the women in our lives reporting “me too,” if those screenwriters and producers ever gave what they were doing a second thought. Did they have any empathy at all, for Rachael, and for Young?

Brilliant. Beautiful. Puzzling. Troubling.

It’s a stunning film, but usually when you say that about a movie, it’s not because you actually feel like you received a head injury while watching it. Unlike Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 left me injured, and numbed, as if one of the blades sliced into my guts as well. The puzzles are fascinating; I have been thinking about them for days. But if the moral weight of a film is put on the scale to determine, in part, its ultimate success or failure, this sequel’s brutality towards not just the characters but towards the audience itself has to count for something.

Ypsilanti, Michigan
October 24th, 2017

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Read It, October 2017

Today is Monday, October 9th, 2017.

The leaves are beginning to fall and the weather is really getting comfortable. In a few days Grace and I will celebrate our sixteenth wedding anniversary. This month three of our children have birthdays, two on the same day. I’ve had some kind of lingering cold or sinus infection that is leaving me tired and listless and slightly feverish. Usually when I finally give in and go to a doctor, the doctor examines me and says “well, it doesn’t look that serious; your lungs are clear. I’d say just get some extra rest and fluids and give it a few more days.” I don’t want to take rounds of antibiotics if my condition isn’t actually life-threatening, in part because oral antibiotics just often don’t really work that well for sinus infections.

I tried the “getting some extra rest” thing this weekend. Grace and the kids picked up a lot of the slack when I wasn’t cooking or doing dishes. That was nice. I did get a little more rest than usual. But I just find it really hard to nap with any noise happening at all. This means, basically, that I can rarely really get a nap, even if I desperately need one, when the kids are home. Nearly fasting, and drinking a lot of hibiscus tea with honey, helped. As did a little whiskey. A good peaty Islay scotch seems to be at least as effective for a sinus infection as an over-the-counter cold medicine, if not more.

Yesterday’s Pottscast turned out to be more work than we planned. Grace and I recorded a long chat — almost two hours. Because, apparently, I was not as alert as I usually am, I managed to merely imagine that I got Logic to start recording. Instead, it was playing. So Grace and I spoke while the computer looked like it was recording, and we listened to our monitor mix. The computer didn’t record anything at all.

Later in the evening we basically staged the whole conversation again upstairs, in our bedroom, using a portable recorder. I think we got just about everything out that we said originally, although I was noticeably tired and hoarse.

I still have something like six or seven blogs. Every once in a while, I consider deleting one or two of them completely. But then I get a comment on something I wrote years ago, and it’s a real comment, not spam. So I reconsider.

I’ve been chipping away at a number of different books, in my usual disorganized way. But first I want to mention that we watched Doctor Strange (the 2016 movie).

Doctor Strange

I was never a big comics fan, although I used to read my stepbrother’s leftover comics, back in the late 1970s to early 1980s. I vaguely remember Doctor Strange as, well, strange (go figure), in that he explicitly used magic and sorcery, instead of vague science-based powers and abilities.

The movie comes very close to being very good. At no point is it really a bad movie, and it scores a lot of points for outlandish visuals (although, it seems to me, sometimes quite derivative of the effects in Inception). It’s also quite funny in places. Strange is an arrogant young doctor, a neurosurgeon. After a terrible car accident, Strange has surgery that repairs most of the visible damage to his hands. But he has damage to the nerves that leaves them weak and trembling. Trying to save his career, he travels to Nepal, hoping to find a way to restore his hands. He’s following a lead — his physical therapist knew of a man with a severe spinal cord injury traveled to Nepal and found a way to restore his ability to walk, and even to play basketball.

Strange is a materialist and an atheist, but when he meets the “Ancient One” (Tilda Swinton), she punches him right in the chakras so hard that his astral body blasts out of his material body, and he finds himself staring down at himself in shock. Then she opens his third eye, and it’s an acid trip on the screen. Strange wants to blame it on the tea, or a drug, but he can’t; he’s just been shoved through a door into the undeniable knowledge that the universe is stranger than he could have imagined. And so he flips immediately from a materialist atheist to a mystic who wants to master it all, as quickly as possible.

Swinton is quite good (although an odd casting choice). I agree with the filmmakers who, in interviews, noted that since the original characters were often based on very negative Asian stereotypes (“Fu Manchu” and “Dragon Lady” tropes), they were afraid of being accused of racism for re-creating any of those characters. Instead, they chose whitewashing. I’m not sure this was the best way to navigate that particular minefield, but I am glad that the Asian characters are, at least for the most part, free of these stereotypes.

The weaknesses of this movie have little to do with the visuals and acting, and everything to do with the screenplay. The film feels a little long, but it feels long because by the halfway point, we’re able to guess how it all will end. The symbols are pretty heavy-handed. There’s a scene where Strange breaks into the library of forbidden sorcery books, and as he pulls down the forbidden book, he takes a bite of an apple and places it on a desk, center-screen. It doesn’t take an English degree to realize that he is eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, and what will happen next. I actually stopped the movie here and explained to my kids this symbol and its significance, and told them “by the way, here’s what’s going to happen next.” I explained, based on the setup so far, who would die, how the plot lines would play out, and where the various relationship issues would end up. I took no great joy in being right. If it had been a better movie, I would have been guessing right up to the end. That predictability, together with a number of characters one doesn’t really feel all that interested in, make the movie feel longer than it is.

Angelica Jade Bastien has a review here on She makes a number of good points in her review. She writes:

One of the most glaring sins of “Doctor Strange” is how quickly Strange masters magic. There isn’t much tension in his arc. While he struggles briefly at first to keep up with other students The Ancient One has taken under her care, he’s soon stealing sacred books out from under Wong (Benedict Wong), the sharp-eyed master who protects the texts at The Ancient One’s behest. Strange plays by his own rules, growing far beyond the skills of those around him. He even goes as far as bending time, secretly reading from forbidden texts and wielding the Eye of Agamotto. When Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) remarks that Strange seems destined for this, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Of course he was.

Bastien also points out that Swinton’s character “seems to be from another film entirely — one that would truly embrace the weirdness of the premise beyond the trippy visual effects.” Yes — I’d like to see that movie.

There is the promise of at least one sequel. I enjoyed this one enough that I would probably go see that sequel on the big screen.

On a final technical note: I watched this movie on a Blu-ray disc, playing the audio through an old Onkyo receiver into a pair of bookshelf speakers. This was a mistake. The audio track contains a huge amount of low-frequency energy — when the sorcerors fire off magic spells, the audio is made to show off the gut-shaking capacity of a movie theater’s THX sound system. My poor speakers looked like they were going to fire their woofers across the room, and the thundering sub-bass frequencies came out sounding like a wet fart.

I’m not quite sure how to fix this — maybe I needed to set the Blu-ray player to play the stereo track instead of the 5.1 track? My Blu-ray player doesn’t seem to have an option to apply a high-pass filter to the audio output. Maybe I need to protect the speakers with a capacitor network that rolls off low frequencies.

In any case, be cautious if you are going to listen to this movie on ordinary stereo speakers. You might well blow them. Mine are still working, but one sounds a bit damaged, and may not be long for this world.

Alastair Reynolds

I picked up a copy of Alastair Reynolds’ story collection, Deep Navigation. This is a lesser-known story collection, available only in a NEFSA (New England Science Fiction Association) Press printing. I ordered a used copy from Alibris, and it arrived damaged, shipped only in a plastic bag. This always enrages me — the whole book was bent, as if someone placed it across a gap between two chairs, and stood on it. It is still readable, but why couldn’t the seller ship it with a little more protection? (Cost, of course).

But anyway, how is it?

So far it is confirming my initial guess — that this collection represents the bottom of the barrel of Reynolds’ output, and is for dedicated fans only.

The first story, “Nunivak Snowflakes,” involves a teenager with an artificial arm who can do healing magic, and receives strange messages on pieces of paper inside fish that fall from the sky. After a weird setup like this, and the introduction of several intriguing characters, I was ready for a surreal novella. But this is only a short story, and next to nothing happens before the story abruptly ends. This was his first published story and it shows — the setup is imaginative, but he didn’t really build it into anything.

The next one, “Monkey Suit,” fits more-or-less into the Revelation Space universe. It’s a decent enough story, a little creepy. It reminds me of the Doctor Who two-parter, “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead.” I can see why it was left of of other collections that contained Revelation Space stories, though — it’s just not quite strong enough, or dark enough, to fit in with the other RS material.

“The Fixation” again has a fascinating setup involving the restoration of the Antikythera mechanism, and some mumbling about quantum mechanics and the many-worlds hypothesis, but then, like “Nunivak Snowflakes” it ends, without ever really getting the story arc to, well, arc up off the ground. It’s another atmospheric disappointment. Honestly, it probably should have stayed on his hard drive until he found a way to flesh it out.

I’ll continue, but so far what I’ve read is largely discouraging, so I may not even keep this book in my permanent collection. And I’ll be hesitant in the future to buy any special limited editions released by NEFSA Press. Sometimes unpublished material really is unpublished for good reasons.

The Compleat Enchanter

This volume collects three novellas, collaborations between L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, with the first two stories dating back to 1940. Stylistically, they feel a bit dated at times — an unmistakeable ambient sexism flows through them. But they are also quite funny, and I can detect a very strong through-line between these stories and the writing of contemporary authors such as Jim Butcher. They are sort of a hybrid between low fantasy and high fantasy, and the bridge between the two levels, that keeps the conceit working, is their humor.

I think Heinlein may have had homage to de Camp and Pratt in mind when he created The Number of the Beast In that book (not Heinlein’s finest, but an interesting failure), there is a finite, but very large, number of universes, some of which closely match the worlds sketched in famous science fiction and fantasy stories — for example, Oz, Barsoom, and Pellucidar — and some don’t. In Heinlein’s story a technological device is used to travel between universes.

In de Camp and Pratt’s formulations, the original authors of myths and legends were so crazy that their brains ran on alternative logic, so their minds could “jump the tracks” to these next-door universes and experience these alternate realities. Harold Shea learns to travels to parallel universes via a “syllogismobile,” not really a vehicle, but a mathematical model of the rules of these alternate realities, which he simply studies. Each of the universes in question embodies a literary world.

In “The Roaring Trumpet,” Shea sets out to enter the world of Irish myth, but makes a mistake, and winds up in a world of Norse myth, while the gods get ready for Ragnarok. The gods are real, and very powerful, and very dangerous, and the humans live in uneasy alliance with them, trying to avoid getting trampled. It’s a greasy, cold place:

The meal consisted of various meats, with beside them a big slab of bread, looking as though it had been cut from a quilt. There was no sign of knife, fork, or any vegetable element. The meat he picked up rather gingerly was apparently a boiled pork chop, well-cooked and well-seasoned. But as he was taking the second bite, he noted that the shield girl, Aud, was was still standing beside him.

As he looked round Aud made a curtsey and said rapidly: “Lord, with this meal as with all things, your wishes are our law. Is there aught else that you desire?

Shea hesitated for a moment, realizing it was a formula required by politeness and that he should make some remark praising the food. But he had had a long drink of potent mead on an empty stomach. The normal food habits of an American urged him to action.

“Would it be too much to ask whether you have any vegetables?” he said.

For one brief second both the girl and Thjalfi stared fit him. Then both burst, into shrieks of laughter, Aud staggering back toward the wall, Thjalfi rolling his head forward on his arms. Shea sat staring, red with embarrassment, the half-eaten chop in his hand.

There are quite a few funny scenes, and the story moves along quickly. This is a world of magic. But while some fantasy authors lazily use magic as a generic plot device, capable of doing anything that is needed at any time, “playing tennis with the net down,” de Camp and Pratt set themselves the challenge of trying to come up with a magic that is not just a set of recipes and spells to learn, but which has rules, that the characters can learn and exploit to create the effects that they desire. For example:

“The law of similarity may be stated thus: Effects resemble causes. It’s not valid for us, but primitive peoples firmly believe it. For example, they think you can make it rain by pouring water on the ground with appropriate mumbo jumbo.”

The first novella moves along quite speedily, but the authors were writing a novella, and were not interested in the challenge of portraying Ragnarok to the bitter end. So, wisely, they end the story, and pull the fish-out-of-water Shea back to his own world before he gets himself killed.

In the next novella, “The Mathematics of Magic,” Shea travels with his colleague, Chalmers, to the world of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (an epic English poem from 1590 which, sadly, I have not read). Chalmers takes to magic like a fish to water, and actually likes life as a magician in the land of faerie more than life as an elderly psychologist in New England. And Chalmers is quite powerful, as a magician, although apparently one must learn how to carefully calibrate spells, or they can easily produce results that are multiple powers of ten bigger, or smaller, than expected. When Chalmers summons a dragon, he and Shea are delighted to find that the spell worked! But then:

A second draconian head was pushed through the smoke. This one was squirted out in a few seconds. It looked at the three men, then wandered over to a clump of bright-colored flowers, sniffed, and began to eat them. Now a third and a fourth head were already in sight. As fast as the dragons were extruded, more followed them. The field down to the very confines of the trees was crowded with them, new arrivals butting the others to make room or scratching their sides on trees. Shea was counting: “Thirty-three, thirty-four…”

I have not yet finished the third novella, “The Castle of Iron,” but I will be done with it soon, and I will decide whether I want to track down more of the novellas. de Camp and Pratt collaborated on “Wall of Serpents” and “The Green Magician.” But after the fifth one, I believe that Pratt unfortunately died. de Camp then continued working on several more stories in the series, collaborating with Christopher Stasheff and other authors. I have no idea if these later stories are as good as the original collaborations, but I suspect that they are not.

While I’ve characterized these stories as funny, I have to admit that funny is not always enough. Reading them in 2017, they seem to have a sort of “neither fish nor fowl” aspect. They aren’t serious or epic enough for me to really sink my teeth into, like E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. But they also aren’t quite silly and energetic enough to make good bedtime stories for the kids, and the aforementioned sexism and mild dirty jokes make them unsuitable for bedtime reading:

“Now, what I want to say is that this here is a very useful little collop of jewelry, both for the lady and her knight. It has a double enchantment on it. For the lady, it makes her ten times fairer the minute she puts it on, and it also, it won’t stay around the waist of any wench who’s not perfectly chaste and pure. That’s for the benefit of the knight. The minute this lady can’t keep her belt on he knows she’s been up to tricks.”

Although I definitely acknowledge that these are historically significant and can see their influence all over modern fantasy, I’m not sure they are really going to be among my favorites. Writers like Butcher that they influenced, directly or indirectly, to me seem like they have clearly outdistanced the original concept, keeping the humor while also creating compelling characters and plots.

And despite reading dozens of fantasy novels in my youth, in general I’m not really a big fan of most fantasy. It really takes the very exceptional stuff, the best of the best, to convince me. Generally, I’ll forgive science fiction that is written at a mediocre level, if it contains fascinating ideas, while in fantasy the ideas are rarely very original, and so the writing has to be compelling.

In the case of The Compleat Enchanter the ideas are refreshed, and I love the idea of trying to build a scaffolding of rules under traditional magic, a bit like what Whitehead and Russell attempted to do for mathematics with Principia Mathematica. But they just don’t seem meaty enough to re-read.

Maybe I’m just getting more jaded, as at 50, if you hand me a new (new, or new to me) work of science fiction or fantasy, the odds are that I’ve read something like it before, something that does what the new book does, but better, and maybe even does it backwards and in high heels. There’s a river of new work published every year, and ain’t nobody got time for all that.

I’ll finish these, and maybe I’ll continue. Maybe they’ll seem better to me then. Time will tell. Maybe they’ll become your favorites. Or maybe they already are?

Non-fiction and Fiction On Deck

I’ve got a lot of books in piles around my bed. There’s Unspeakable by Chris Hedges and David Talbot. Hedges is a very challenging thinker. This book is an extended interview with Hedges, carried out over several days. You can dip into it out of order, but if you read the sections in order, it forms a sort of autobiography of Hedges.

There are many more non-fiction books piled up, and I’m not going to list them all now; some of them will be mentioned in the podcast.

I’ve also dug out a book that was very significant to me in childhood — The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White. Speaking of “neither fish nor fowl” — it’s an Arthurian romance, a fantasy, set in medieval Europe, but also, dripping with anachronisms. It was reworked slightly and toned down to serve as the first part of The Once and Future King, a considerably darker story, which I also read as a child. I also read the separate, sad finale, The Book of Merlyn. I probably bought my paperback copy of The Once and Future King at a Waldenbooks in Erie, and bought a copy of The Book of Merlyn, I believe, via the Scholastic Book Club, probably in sixth grade.

The Sword in the Stone is very, very funny. I’m now reading chapters from this book to my children at bedtime. I’ve been running around the bedroom pretending to be King Pellinore in his massive suit of armor with padded helm:

“Traitor knight!” cried Sir Grummore.

“Yield, recreant, what?” cried King Pellinore.

They fewtered their spears again, and thundered into the charge.

“Oh,” said the Wart, “I hope they don’t hurt themselves.”

But the two mounts were patiently blundering together, and the two knights had simultaneously decided on the sweeping stroke. Each held his spear at right angles toward the left, and, before the Wart could say anything further, there was a terrific yet melodious thump. Clang! went the armour, like a motor omnibus in collision with a smithy, and the jousters were sitting side by side on the green sward, while their horses cantered off in opposite directions.

“A splendid fall,” said Merlyn.

The two horses pulled themselves up, their duty done, and began resignedly to eat the sward. King Pellinore and Sir Grummore sat looking straight before them, each with the other’s spear clasped hopefully under his arm.

“Well!” said the Wart. “What a bump! They both seem to be all right, so far.”

Sir Grummore and King Pellinore laboriously got up.

“Defend thee,” cried King Pellinore.

“God save thee,” cried Sir Grummore.

With this they drew their swords and rushed together with such ferocity that each, after dealing the other a dint on the helm, sat down suddenly backwards.

“Bah!” cried King Pellinore.

“Booh!” cried Sir Grummore, also sitting down.

“Mercy,” exclaimed the Wart. “What a combat!”

This is another book that has been hugely influential on modern fantasy. If you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s portrayal of Radagast in The Hobbit, you might have a shock of recognition when you read White’s description of Merlyn the magician:

Merlyn had a long white beard and long white moustaches which hung down on either side of it. Close inspecpection showed that he was far from clean. It was not that he had dirty fingernails, or anything like that, but some large bird seemed to have been nesting in his hair. The Wart was familiar with the nests of Spar-hark and Gos, the crazy conglomerations of sticks and oddments which had been taken over from squirrels or crows, and he knew how the twigs and the tree foot were splashed with white mutes, old bones, muddy feathers and castings. This was the impression which he got from Merlyn. The old man was streaked with droppings over his shoulders, among the stars and triangles of his gown, and a large spider was slowly lowering itself from the tip of his hat, as he gazed and slowly blinked at the little boy in front of him.

And if you’ve ever enjoyed Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, with its singing teapots and candlesticks, you might raise an eyebrow as you read about Merlyn’s mustard-pot:

“Have some mustard,” said the magician, when they had got to the kidneys.

The mustard-pot got up and walked over to his plate on thin silver legs that waddled like the owl’s. Then it uncurled its handles and one handle lifted its lid with exaggerated courtesy while the other helped him to a generous spoonful.

“Oh, I love the mustard-pot!” cried the Wart. “Whereever did you get it?’ At this the pot beamed all over its face and began to strut a bit, but Merlyn rapped it on the head with a teaspoon, so that it sat down and shut up at once.

“It is not a bad pot,” he said grudgingly. “Only it is inclined to give itself airs.”

This Potts is also inclined to give himself airs as well, and could write about the books that wrote him all night. But it’s time to go have dinner with my family. Perhaps there will be mustard.

Ypsilanti, Michigan
October 9th and 19th, 2017

Monday, September 25, 2017

The End of My Forties

Today is Monday, September 25th, 2017.

Tomorrow is my birthday. I’ll be fifty. It will be the end of my forties, but also it means tomorrow I will have completed my fiftieth year. A few years back it was the twentieth century, until the end of 2000, not the end of 1999. There was no year zero. Does that mean I’ll be in my forties until my birthday in 2018, when I’ll turn 51? No, because I had a “year zero,” my first year, from my birth to my first birthday. I find this endlessly confusing. Maybe it’s only confusing to old people.

It feels like age has been catching up to me recently, with a bit of a vengeance. I’ve certainly felt myself aging, gradually and relatively smoothly. But lately it has seemed to be accelerating. The stress has been catching up with me. It’s been a couple of stressful years. The situation with our old house in Saginaw, empty and unsold, is weighing heavily on me. Living in Saginaw was stressful in its own way, what with repeated periods of unemployment, but I was getting regular exercise, and my diet was better. Here the family is in one place again, but we are not fully settled. I’m not really in a sustainable daily routine. A lot of things are on hold until we resolve the situation with the old house. For example, we still don’t really have furniture in most rooms in the new house. I am trying to carefully keep as much cash in reserve as I can, every week, spending money only on critical items. Most of my books are still in boxes, because I am waiting to set up custom bookcases; ordinary bookcases from Ikea or elsewhere are just not going to cut it for our library of almost 4,000 books. I am looking forward to the day I can have everything shelved; it may take some time, but it will be glorious. On the day that everything is shelved, I intend to have a party. But that is still in the future.

We have surprises. For example, the water coming from our softener was not up to snuff. We had a guy come out to look at our iron filter. He told us that it’s meant to last for ten years, and it’s now in year fifteen. Surprise. Changing it out cost seven hundred dollars. When we set up the appointment, I put a line item in our spreadsheet, “water system service (TBD),” for $250. Oops. Well, it’s hard to regret spending that $700, because our water now looks, smells, and tastes substantially better. It should also help keep our water heater from clogging up and corroding. But we didn’t have the information that the water system was way overdue for an expensive filter replacement. I’m also trying to keep a balance set aside for the next big water system expense, which will probably be the water heater itself.

We also didn’t expect the water leak in the ceiling of the garage, or the washing machine blowout upstairs. Ultimately I’m grateful that I’m now earning enough, and setting aside enough, that we can absorb these shocks without crashing our bank account. But there’s no way I can earn enough, or set aside enough, to handle a worst-case scenario with our old house in Saginaw, just as very few people would have the cash on hand to pay for a baby’s open heart-surgery out of pocket. (I’ve been watching the paperwork go by, as our insurance company negotiates and pays portions of the bill. It’s like watching Godzilla jockey for a wrestling hold on Megalon, and vice-versa. The amount our insurer has already paid for her hospitalization, after surgery, was almost as much as our asking price for our old house. I don’t know what the final bills will look like, all told; there are dozens of Explanation of Benefits, each of which is the tip of an iceberg of bills and line items. All us civilians can do is hope we don’t become collateral damage in the fight, crushed under a falling giant).

Big Plans, Small Steps

I’m pleased to announce that Grace and I have managed to stick to a podcast schedule for eight weeks running. The “big plan” is to grow the podcast as best we can, and add in more content and guests via Skype. The “small steps” are just more of what we’ve been doing — continuing to do our best to get a show out each week, whether we have a lot of material prepped, or not, whether we are feeling our best, or not. I announce the episodes on our project blog, here:

On to the reading.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling

I finally, finally, finally finished reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to my kids. I’m so glad we finished. Book 4 is a slog. It has some great moments, and great scenes, but it’s just too long; there are too many sub-plots, and for every exciting chapter or scene, there are three that slow down and drag out the story. There are several villain monologues worthy of the James Bond franchise. Because there are so many plot strands, right after the climax of the book we have a long denoument, and a series of infodumps. One of them is a confession. Barty Crouch is given veritaserum, and spills his guts. It goes on for pages. You might find, reading it, that you are pleased that everything eventually fits together and makes sense, but at the same time, feel as if you no longer really care.

I’m not in any big hurry to move on to book 5. For one thing, as our three most avid bedtime story listeners are 12, 10, and 8, I think we might be getting ahead of their ages.

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds

After finishing up Redemption Ark, it was pretty natural to segue directly ingo the sequel, Absolution Gap. In this book, Reynolds has to keep ratcheting up the strangeness and the darkness, but has to keep the reader interested in an active, human-centered story. So we have a major character tortured to death, because morally, in context, it’s the necessary thing to do; we have a woman killed horifically, by an accident that saves the life of her partner; we have a child brought into existence around a neutron star and modified to be a conduit for information from the future.

In Reynolds’ worlds, technology is always a little frightening, and the higher the technology, the more terrifying. But despite a narrowing, dangerous future, the people in his world often still have the wiggle room to make moral choices, and some of them are inspiring.

Meanwhile, his world-building of a future religious sect on the moon Hela is breathtaking, and very, very cyber-punk. As the moon slowly turns, almost, but not completely, tidally locked with the gas giant Haldora, a convoy of giant cathedrals must crawl in an endless convoy around the moon, staying in view of Haldora so that legions of religious pilgrims can watch the face of the planet, around the clock, waiting for it to — for just a fraction of a second — vanish.

This book, though it is a big, sprawling story, moves along a little quicker than Redemption Ark. It’s complicated, intercut in time and space, but it’s a fitting ending to the Revelation Space books, and sets up events that are continued in the stories in Galactic North. I should probably re-read Galactic North and The Prefect and Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days, but in a day or two I should be receiving a copy of the story collection Deep Navigation, containing Revelation Space stories I haven’t yet read, so that will come first. There’s another collection, Beyond the Aquila Rift, that I don’t have, but I’m scratching my head a bit because it looks like this collection consists mostly of material already collected in his previous story collections, and so I’m wondering if I need it.

Finally, I’ll note in passing that a sequel to The Prefect, called Elysium Fire, is due in 2018, and a sequel to Revenger, called Revealer, is due in 2019.

A Pile of Non-Fiction

I’m reading and skimming several non-fiction books: A Fighting Chance by Senator Elizabeth Warren; Our Revolution by Senator Bernie Sanders; Demagoguery and Democracy by Michael Signer; False Choices: the Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton edited by Liza Featherstone, and What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton. I probably won’t finish all these, but I’m using them as fodder to create notes and articles for eventual inclusion in the Pottscast.

And… Stories!

One of my finds from the Blueberry Book Barn is a collection called Fifty Years of the Best Science Fiction from Analog. They copy I got there is unfortunately pretty foul-smelling, and I spent some time cleaning bug poop of the page edges and letting it dry out. It still sets off my allergies a bit, but it contains some great stories. Last night I read the kids two of them: (“—And He Built a Crooked House—”)[], by Robert A. Heinlein, first published in 1941, and “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline” by Isaac Asimov.

“Crooked House” is sexist in execution but still hugely entertaining. An arrogant young architect, inspired by the purely mathematical object known as the hypercube, wants to build a house that would take up only a very limited volume in our three-dimensional space, but actually contain much more space. Unable to realize this in three dimensions, he satisfies himself with building an “unfolded” hypercube, a net of the 4-dimensional hypercube. The night before the owner is to see the house for the first time, there is a minor earthquake, and the house folds up, collapsing into a quote-real-unquote hypercube. The story is a great example of a science fiction story that requires the reader’s disbelief to be suspended only about one particular question: could such a structure, that occupies four spatial dimensions, exist in our normally accessible three-dimensional space, in such a way that we could enter it, and traverse through it? The answer is undoubtedly “no,” but if you’re willing to say “maybe” for a few pages, you’ll love this story, in which the premise is fully explored.

I first read “Thiotimoline” in a paperback copy of The Early Asimov, Book 2, which I came across back in grade school, when I was at the Erie Day School, somewhere between grades 4–6. This story is written in the form of a paper, published in a journal of chemistry. It starts out innocently enough, explaining a series of experiments in purifying (resublimating) an unusual compound called thiotimoline (note that this compound is fictional). We learn that in the process of measuring the time it takes thiotimoline to dissolve, the author discovered that in some cases the compound dissolved before the solvent was added — that is, it anticipated that the solvent would be added in the future and so dissolved in negative time. In one of the greatest jokes every contained in the fewest possible number of words, the author notes that while he tried to fool the compound by getting it to dissolve without ever adding the solvent, it was too smart for him, and would only dissolve if he eventually added the solvent.

I remember laughing uproariously at this story back when I first read it as a kid. I “got it.” Reading it to my kids last night, a couple of them “got it” and also started laughing and yelling “what???” and interrupting the story to express their disbelief.

There’s a little more to the story-slash-scientific paper. Apparently the speed with which thiotimoline dissolves is dependent on the exact nature of the solvent, and any compounds already dissolved in the solvent. This implies that the compound “thiotimoline” is somehow “smart” enough to know “in advance” not just that it is about to be dissolved, but in what solvent it is about to be dissolved, implying even more strongly that either it somehow knows the future, or it can do instant analytic chemistry on its own as the beaker of solvent approaches.

Thiotimoline is kind of like Shrödinger’s Cat — just as Shrodinger’s Cat is a thought experiment about what quantum uncertainty looks like, “scaled up” to an observable size, thiotimoline is a thought experiment about what quantum causality violations look like, “scaled up” to an observable duration. And it raised hilarious philosophical questions as well: does a chemical compound have free will? Do we? All this popped into my head in a single “flash” as I read the original story.

What I also remember, from reading it, is just how alienating it could be to “get” something that is well beyond your grade level, as a gifted child — to understand an elaborate intellectual joke, but also to realize that there was no one around me — not a parent, not a teacher, not a sibling — who would find it funny, even if I could make them understand it, because the humor of it required that you “get it” in a flash of insight; if it’s explained, and you have to slow-walk through the counter-factuals, it isn’t funny.

My universe will end someday, perhaps sooner than I hoped. My kids will carry pieces of it forward and use them as building blocks for their own unique voices and points of view.

On my way out, today, I’ll just leave this here for you to peruse, at your own convenience.

Ypsilanti, Michigan
September 25th, 2017

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The End of Summer

Today is Monday, August 28th, 2017. (Well, that was the date when I started writing this piece — but it has been taking me increasingly longer to finish these little essays, and so here I am on September 5th, and I haven’t come close to capturing everything on my mind this week).

Summer in Michigan is not like summer in Ohio. After hot weeks in July I still find myself gritting my teeth waiting for things to really heat up in August — but then, it mostly doesn’t happen. And by the end of August, it is often time to break out long-sleeved shirts and some extra blankets to throw on in the middle of the night. Google tells me that the summer temperatures peak, on average, on July 19th.

As I write this, the stalled-out Tropical Storm Harvey, previously known as Hurricane Harvey, is flooding parts of Texas. Today sites like Weather Underground are reporting that “total rainfall could reach 50 inches in Texas.” That’s terrifying, and it is not finished. Long-term, this kind of massive horizontal build-out, across hundreds of square miles of concrete and soils with poor drainage, in hurricane zones, is simply not going to be sustainable. Whether you believe in anthropogenic global warming or not, internally displaced “climate refugees” are already a real phenomenon, and the number will increase every year for the rest of your life.

Closer to home, our new house in the woods south of Ypsilanti is serving us admirably. The kids can play in the woods. We have not really furnished it much yet, so we’re lacking a lot of things, like a couch in the family room. We don’t have a television, although we occasionally watch a TV show such as Doctor Who on my iPad or on a laptop. I find that I really like it this way, living with a sort of minimalism, although we are planning to have a couch eventually. It’s a bit like being on vacation in the woods, every evening and weekend. I don’t love the amount we had to finance, to buy this home, but I do love the house, and I’m glad we held out in our house search until we finally found a place we could look forward to coming home to.

At long last, we’re getting very close to the end of our work at our old house in Saginaw. I’ve been making round trips each weekend to bring carloads of stuff, while Grace has been taking the kids up there during the week to work on cleaning things, out, sorting stuff, taking things to Goodwill, and packing. It’s been a real slog. I’ve tried to calculate the number of times I’ve made the drive between Saginaw and Washtenaw County, and it’s a very large number. I’ve put almost sixty thousand miles on the Element since June of 2015. It’s held up really well, fortunately. I think it helps that most of those miles have been freeway miles, although freeways in Michigan, with constant construction and potholes, can still be awfully hard on a car.

To help motivate myself to make the drive, on the last couple of trips I’ve taken a side trip to Russell’s Blueberry Farm and Book Barn, which I usually abbreviate in my head to just the “blueberry book barn.” It’s a you-pick blueberry farm with a used book store on the premises. They’ve got a pretty impressive collection of science fiction and fantasy books, although I have picked it over quite a bit over the last few years, and they don’t restock that often. As the building is not air-conditioned, unfortunately the books tend to suffer over time from too much exposure to humidity.

I’ve had to pass over a lot of books that I’d like to have, because they have mildew spotting and strong smells. I’ll take a book home if it is just a little musty. In my experience, after a few days in a dry environment, and maybe an hour or two in the sun, those books will dry out and smell better. If there are some bits of powdery mildew on the cover, those will generally wipe off with a damp cloth. But if the pages are stained or spotted, I pass them up.

I’ve got a particular weakness for Science Fiction Book Club editions. They are widely available and usually not considered highly collectible, and so you can often get them at reasonable prices. They aren’t really well-made hardcovers, though, so aren’t much more rugged than a paperback. In general, the older ones are better-constructed. I found an SFBC hardcover edition of J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World bound together with The Wind from Nowhere, from 1965. Aside from a little bit of fading and browning on the edges of the dust jacket, it’s in quite good condition, and less fragile than many of the much newer SFBC editions that I own. I also found a copy of Radio Free Albemuth, which is particularly nostalgic for me because, if I recall correctly, I received this book from the SFBC back in 1985, when I had a membership. That copy is long-gone, but it’s nice to have it again.

I also found a copy of Galactic Pot-Healer, the book club edition from 1969. This copy is a little worse for wear, but still pretty clean. Back in the late 1980s through early 1990s, before Philip K. Dick’s novels were reprinted, the only way to read them all was to track down brittle old paperbacks. I owned pretty much every one of his novels in old editions, including some of the odder rarities like The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike. I had to sell most of those years ago, during various periods of unemployment. But these days just about everything he wrote is in print, and with the forthcoming release of the Blade Runner sequel, his reputation seems secure.

Other authors are less secure, and harder to find these days. I love story collections, and I’ve brought home a number of them from the Blueberry Book Barn. I once found a copy of Nine Hundred Grandmothers by R. A. Lafferty, which is a somewhat scarce book. I have been collecting books from Donald A. Wollheim’s Word’s Best Science Fiction series. Those aren’t particularly scarce. I also found a single-author collection, The Best of Cordwainer Smith, edited by J. J. Pierce, from 1975, and another, The Best of C. M. Kornbluth, edited by Frederick Pohl, from 1967.

When I skim through these books I’m inevitably happy to run across a story I remember reading before, usually decades ago. This time it was the story “The Little Black Bag,” by Kornbluth. Kornbluth was apparently a strange guy, and he died tragically of a heart attack at the age of 34, but his stories remain brilliant. I have no idea just when I first read “The Little Black Bag,” but it must have been back in my own “golden age of science fiction,” about age twelve. (The original jokey phrase, “The Golden Age of science fiction is twelve,” is apparently (at least, according to Google’s algorithms) due to Peter Graham, but it has been widely quoted).

I was twelve in 1979–1980, and trawling through libraries. I don’t remember where I came across “The Little Black Bag,” but it was probably in an anthology. I also remember reading Kornbluth’s other famous story, “The Marching Morons,” which was published in Omni magazine in the October 1980 issue; I had a subscription, as proper nerds did.

I was pleased to find that “The Little Black Bag” has been turned into an episode of Escape Pod

The Grace and Paul Pottscast

Grace and I have been releasing a new podcast episode every Sunday for a few weeks, and hope to continue that schedule (although with six young kids at home, life does tend to intervene in our plans). I announce the podcast episodes on a blog, here. The blog posts have direct links to the MP3 files, or if you use a program like iTunes to manage your podcast listening, you can subscribe to the feed here.

In order to get episodes out more regularly, I’ve been working to make my production process easier and less time-consuming. To make this work well, I need to be able to go from a recording of our conversation to a finished podcast quickly, completing the production the same day we record. I’d like to be able to complete all the post-recording steps in under an hour, ideally, and that includes the time needed to transfer the audio file across the network, generate the completed audio file, convert it to MP3 format, and upload the MP3 file. The process should be simple enough to let me finish it without having to backtrack and fix technical mistakes even when I’m tired and distracted and rushing, late on a Sunday evening. I need to be able to drop the two-channel recording into a Logic Pro project, and export a finished audio file. I can’t take hours to edit the conversation, even if it cries out for editing; I just don’t typically have enough free time in a given week. It’s either get-it-done and shrug at the flaws, or wallow in my usual obsessive-compulsive perfectionism and don’t-get-it-done-at-all.

Once I’ve got a finished audio file (a WAV file), there are a lot of fiddly steps remaining. I need to convert it into an MP3 file. I need to tag the MP3 file, so that it shows up properly in iTunes or other programs that folks use to manage their podcasts. Then I need to upload that file to my web hosting company’s server.I need to write a description of the episode. I need to upload that file to my web hosting company’s server. I need to then create an entry in the podcast feed file. The feed file is in XML format. Links require Percent-encoding (also known as URL- or URI-encoding). The feed file entries require the file size in bytes, the running time in seconds, and the date and time in an RFC 2822-compliant format.

Then I also need to write a post on the podcast’s blog. Rather than write my blog posts directly on Blogger, I’ve developed the workflow of writing them in Markdown format and using the wonderful program Pandoc to turn it into HTML. This lets me edit my own files on my own computer in Markdown, which is much nicer for simple writing, while still getting nicely formatted HTML that lives up to my standards for typography, with proper accented characters and curly quotation marks.

A lot of the different pieces of text to assemble all the pieces — the file name, the MP3 file tags, the XML feed file entry fields, and the blog post — are identical, or similar. Typing out dates and file sizes and file durations and percent-encoded URIs is extremely tedious and prone to error. A typo in a link in the feed file or the blog post means that the podcast will not work right for a potential listener. So I’ve long wanted a nice clean way to automate this process as much as I reasonably can. I’d like to be able to write the title, short summary, and long description of each episode once and save it in a text file. I’d like to have everything else — all those other steps — happen pretty much automatically, by running a script.

I have finally put some work towards such a script. I have a BBEdit shell Worksheet for the podcast. The BBEdit shell worksheet is a wonderful invention — an homage to the user interface used in the old Macintosh Programmer’s Workshop (MPW). The worksheet is a text file that you can edit and save, but it is also a sort of interactive shell script. You can select lines from the file and press the Enter key, and they will be executed in the context of my shell, which is bash. The results will appear right in the worksheet. Long-running commands animate a little spinner in the status bar at the bottom of the window. So I’ve come up with commands I can run right in the worksheet to encode and tag the MP3 file exactly as I want, and generate the percent-encoded link, and create the properly formatted date and time. There’s a set of commands for each episode, and they are saved in the worksheet right along with the audio projects, so if I want to change the source files and re-generate everything, I can.

Here’s the section of the worksheet for Episode 13. Some of these lines are the commands, and some are their output:

# EPISODE 13: Dude, Do You Even Protest?

EPISODE_TITLE="Conversation #13: Dude, Do You Even Protest? (September 3, 2017)"
EPISODE_MP3_FILENAME="Conversation #13_ Dude, Do You Even Protest? (September 3, 2017).mp3"
EPISODE_SUBDIRECTORY="Conversation 13 - Dude, Do You Even Protest?"


EPISODE_SUMMARY="Grace and I discuss protest, using as a jumping-off point Nathan Heller's book review article from the August 21st issue of _The New Yorker_. We start off a bit incoherently, cherry-picking some points made and quotes included from the books Heller is reviewing, before settling on a real critique of the author's actual take on the issue, which is surprisingly vacuous. Nevertheless, questions of whether and how to protest, and whether it is effective in the modern era, still interest us, so we try to come to grips with them. Along the way Grace and I recount a little bit about our own histories of activism and dissent, in marches, on picket lines, and in our work, and try to answser the question 'you criticize a lot of other people about their politics -- but what are _you_ doing to make a difference?'"

EPISODE_SUBTITLE="Grace and I discuss the question of whether public protest is useful and meaningful today."
if [ ${#EPISODE_SUBTITLE} -ge 255 ]; then echo "subtitle field must be 255 characters or less"; else echo "subtitle field length ok"; fi

echo "File size in byes:"

File size in byes:

echo "Current date/time:"
php -r 'date_default_timezone_set("America/Detroit"); echo date(DateTime::RFC2822);'

Current date/time:
Mon, 04 Sep 2017 01:27:05 -0400

echo "File duration:"
ffmpeg -i "$PROJECT_PATH/MP3/$EPISODE_MP3_FILENAME" 2>&1 | grep "Duration" | cut -d ' ' -f 4 | sed s/,//

File duration:

echo "URI-encoded filename:"
ENCODED_FILENAME=$(php -r "echo rawurlencode(\"$EPISODE_MP3_FILENAME\");")

URI-encoded filename:

pandoc --ascii --smart --old-dashes -f markdown_strict -t html -o "$PROJECT_PATH/blog posts -- pottscast/generated_html/2017_09_04_conversation_13_dude_do_you_even_protest.html" "$PROJECT_PATH/blog posts -- pottscast/markdown_ascii_source_accented_entities/"

That’s a mess of different little tricks. For reporting the file size, I use the standard “stat” command. To get the date and time in the right format, I call out to execute a tiny program in PHP. To get the file duration, I use ffmpeg, and feed its output through grep and sed. Ideally it would round to the nearest second, but I can do that adjustment by hand. To get the URI-encoded filename I use a PHP one-liner again. Then as part of the same worksheet, I generate the HTML for the blog post.

It won’t yet upload the MP3 for me, or write the entry to the feed file and update the file on my web host, or publish the blog post. This is by design, since I want to make sure I get a good look at each of these things before I publish them. The next step is to generate the whole feed file entry that I can copy and paste into the feed file.

Because the process is so prone to error, I use two feed files. One is the “staging” feed. I add the podcast entry to the staging feed, and then tell iTunes to update my subscription to the staging version of the podcast. I verify that the new podcast entry shows up correctly in iTunes, that I can download and play it. I check that the MP3 file is complete, and that all the tags and metadata fields look just the way I want. Often I double-check the feed files using the free feed validator. And I frequently find errors — for example, apparently the subtitle field in my latest feed entry was too long (the limit for the itunes:subtitle field is apparently 255 characters, and I exceeded that). So I fixed that, and added a length check to my script to avoid running into that problem in the future. When it all looks good, I add the feed entry to the “official” feed file. All this is time-consuming but it avoids breaking the feed.

Like many standards that were originally designed when computers were more resource-constrained, the podcast feed format is archaic and ugly. This 2008 blog post from Coding Horror still applies today. It’s hard to write, and it’s hard to read. It’s increasingly hard for me as I get older and my eyes get worse. You can argue that files like this are meant to be machine-generated, but I think that’s a weak argument. It also imposes a burden on anyone writing code to generate this kind of file. And the standard is so fiddly and full of arbitrary limitations, like the 255-character limit I mentioned, that people do in fact often have to debug their feed files. A new simpler feed format would be a nice start, perhaps in JSON or YAML. But there’s a huge chicken-and-egg problem.

Many people apparently use tools for handling podcasts that just allow them to upload a source file, and handle all the rest. I’ve seen those feed files. They are horrible. The generated MP3 file podcast tags are horrible, too. I’ve been asked on several occasions for help un-fucking someone’s podcast feed because these tools make such a hash of it. I hear horror stories from podcasters all the time who use a service or web site, and when it does wrong they find out the hard way that without tight control of their feed, they are at the mercy of an indifferent hosting company. And so it’s 2017 and I’m doing it the hard way, because it seems to me like the hard way is still easier.

Oh, and there are gratuitous compatibility issues everywhere, even in 2017, even between programs that are the de facto standards for podcasting, LAME and iTunes. To make my new workflow generate files that are fully compatible with iTunes, I had to actually compile my own version of the LAME encoder. I describe how I did that in a blog post here.

As I get older, I’ve got less and less patience for this kind of thing; but at the same time, I want to do my work the way I want to do my work. And I’m cranky and persistent enough to plod along at solving the problems that stand in the way, even if they require ugly hacks… and they do.

Anyway. That’s a long, long explanation that nobody asked for. On to the books.

Proxima by Stephen Baxter

I have mixed feelings about the work of Stephen Baxter. I love his Xeelee stories. I love many of his short stories and novellas. But he writes a lot of other books. Many of them show a basic competence and some imagination, but they just aren’t inspired. So when I first came across Proxima in bookstores, I did not jump on it. I waited a while. And then bought it in paperback.

Proxima is a planetary colonization and planetary exploration story in the mode of some of the old masters; think Clarke and Asimov. Baxter clearly has a lot of respect for the old school.

The premise of Proxima seems pretty convincing. A political prisoner named Yuri (not his real name) has been sent to Mars. He has gotten himself into some sort of trouble, and was put into cryogenic sleep. As the story opens, he’s just woken up, and finds himself on a ship carrying colonists to Proxima Centauri. There’s a space race and the powers that be need colonists. Even prisoners. Baxter makes a nice historical parallel with the colonization of Australia because one of Yuri’s fellow unwilling colonists is actually a crew member named Mardina, an aboriginal Australian forced to stay behind with the colonists at the last minute.

These seems like promising characters, but while Baxter does some nice things with Mardina’s character, he doesn’t seem to ever get around to giving Yuri much in the way of drives, or personality, or indeed, characteristics of any kind. Yuri has a vague drive to keep surviving and keep moving — to keep going through one door after another. And he’s curious. He never seems to enjoy Mardina’s company very much, nor does she enjoy his. But there’s a robot, which humorously references Robbie the Robot, and although Yuri is not very kind to him, together they learn a lot about the planet and the indigenous life. The life on Proxima is deeply strange. Baxter’s work here is excellent, and welcome. It fits into that Asimov/Clarke tradition, even channeling some practitioners of harder science fiction like Robert L. Forward and Hal Clement.

This all goes along in a pretty engaging manner, although Baxter glosses over an awful lot. The biochemistry on Proxima isn’t compatible with human biochemistry, but where Kim Stanley Robinson in Aurora makes this a critical plot driver, Baxter pretty much ignores it. He reserves a lot of thought for the role of artificial intelligences in this future. That part is quite fascinating, and quite dark. There’s an intelligent space probe that is vaguely reminiscent of Lieserl, the originally human AI sent to live inside the sun in Baxter’s novel Ring.

There’s also another technological MacGuffin, the “kernels,” discovered under the surface of mercury. These are tiny energy sources, perhaps wormholes of some kind. They seem to be artificial, planted there at some point in the solar system’s past. I would have like to see more development of the kernels, since Baxter is good at this sort of thing.

Where I start to lose interest in the story is, unfortunately, where I start to lose interest in several of Baxter’s stories: it’s the point where he gives up on any scientific plausibility and introduces magic. Or, if you prefer, it’s the point where he introduces such a “sufficiently advanced” technology that I lose my ability to maintain suspension of disbelief. This seems to be a pattern. He’s scrupulous about his technology — until he reaches the point in the story where suddenly, he isn’t. In some of his other books, it’s the introduction of ghosts from parallel universses. In this book, it’s the introduction of magical portals. Oh, and parallel universes. You can’t have portals without parallel universes. And then, as if Baxter doesn’t feel like he has enough of a story to tell, he decides to raise the stakes very, very high. And then we meet some ancient Romans, or something.

It’s all set up for a bang-up sequel, and it’s available — I could buy it and read it. I’d satisfy my curiousity as to how it all comes out. A few years ago I definitely would pressed on, to get that information. But you know what? I just don’t care very much. Baxter hasn’t given me a whole lot to care about in this book. It’s a little too epic, spinning out rather than in. So at least for now, I’ll skip it. The review on mentions Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden. Maybe I’ll check that out. Or maybe I’ll order up a copy of Xeelee:Endurance. Meanwhile, if you’d like to read a much more character-oriented story that deconstructs the generation starship sub-genre, I recommend Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds

Sometimes when I feel skeptical of new releases — and rightfully so, it seems — I just want to go back and read something I enjoyed before. So I dug into a box (most of my books are still packed, but catalogued so I can find them), and pulled out Redeption Ark, the next book in the Revelation Space series.

I’ll finish up this book in a day or two. It has been fun to refresh my memory about this story. We learn some interesting things about the deep history of the Conjoiners, and the Inhibitors. I just criticized Stephen Baxter for introducing science indistinguishable from magic into his story. Reynolds gets a little close to that at times. We learn that the Conjoiners have actually changed their future by sending information back through time. All I can say in my defense is really that I like the way Reynolds introduces magical technology a lot more than I like the way Baxter introduces it. In Reynolds’ work, it’s deeply scary stuff, even to his most badass characters who themselves are deeply scary like Skade.

In many ways, Reynolds’ space opera is very visual and very heavily influenced by the horror genre. There are several really grim and gruesome injuries and deaths in Redemption Ark. I don’t intend to point that out as a flaw, just an observation. These stories could give a person nightmares, although ultimately they are not nihilistic per se, and are even hopeful about the future. But getting there requires a pretty dark ride.

I can see the books translating pretty brilliantly to film — but telling the story arcs of the Revelation Space universe properly would require multiple films, and each would probably be monstrously expensive. It’s hard to imagine a project like that coming together anytime soon. But meanwhile I can still enjoy them on the IMAX screen inside my head. I’m reminded that while I’m re-reading Reynolds, I should definitely re-read his story collections, Galactic North and Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days. They are terrific. I should also track down a copy of Deep Navigation, which I haven’t read yet.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin

Casting around for more books to read to my children at bedtime, I pulled out an omnibus edition of The Earthsea Trilogy. I had this trilogy as a child in a paperback boxed set. My father gave it to me, I believe. I’m not quite sure what age I was at the time. I don’t think I fully appreciated the quality of Le Guin’s writing at that age; I remember completing the books, but don’t recall that they were particular favorites. I appreciate this work much more now.

Those copies are long-gone, sadly. But I’ve been reading A Wizard of Earthsea to the three older children at home, ages 12, 10, and 8.

Their reaction is mixed. It’s a very vividly-described book, but in some chapters the protagnist, Ged, goes for many pages without much in the way of dialogue or action sequences. So I might be reading along enjoying the beautiful language myself, while they are yawning. But then Le Guin will abruptly — sometimes very abruptly — introduce something quite shocking:

The shapeless mass of darkness he had lifted split apart. It sundered, and a pale spindle of light gleamed between his opened arms, a faint oval reaching from the ground up to the height of his raised hands. In the oval of light for a moment there moved a form, a human shape: a tall woman looking back over her shoulder. Her face was beautiful, and sorrowful, and full of fear.

Only for a moment did the spirit glimmer there. Then the sallow oval between Ged’s arms grew bright. It widened and spread, a rent in the darkness of the earth and night, a ripping open of the fabric of the world. Through it bladed a terrible brightness. And through that bright misshapen breach clambered something like a clot of black shadow, quick and hideous, and it leaped straight out at Ged’s face.

As I read that last sentence, the children actually screamed. So they were definitely paying attention.

The themes of the book are quite deep and quite dark. Le Guin doesn’t make a soft or cuddly world for younger readers. There is no reason why the Earthsea books shouldn’t be considered a major work of fantasy for readers of any age. The kids loved Ged’s encounter with the dragon:

No creature moved nor voice spoke for a long while on the island, but only the waves beat loudly on the shore. Then Ged was aware that the highest tower slowly changed its shape, bulging out on one side as if it grew an arm. He feared dragon-magic, for old dragons are very powerful and guileful in a sorcery like and unlike the sorcery of men: but a moment more and he saw this was no trick of the dragon, but of his own eyes. What he had taken for a part of the tower was the shoulder of the Dragon of Pendor as he uncurled his bulk and lifted himself slowly up.

When he was all afoot his scaled head, spikecrowned and triple-tongued, rose higher than the broken tower’s height, and his taloned forefeet rested on the rubble of the town below. His scales were grey-black, catching the daylight like broken stone. Lean as a hound he was and huge as a hill. Ged stared in awe. There was no song or tale could prepare the mind for this sight. Almost he stared into the dragon’s eyes and was caught, for one cannot look into a dragon’s eyes. He glanced away from the oily green gaze that watched him, and held up before him his staff, that looked now like a splinter, like a twig.

Le Guin’s writing here is some of the most terse and beautiful I’ve ever read, in any genre. Really, I find it humbling to read. It does seem like she’s not quite as facile in world-building as one might hope; I find myself longing to know more about the setting. Earthsea doesn’t have a lot of gratuitous detail in it, at least not so far. But the deceptive minimalist music of the language itself, and the measured pace of the story itself, keeps the reader thoroughly engaged.

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

I had been reading bits of this to the kids, but I’m setting it aside. The themes are just a bit too mature for them. There’s infanticide, and attempted suicide, and the like. Maybe I’ll finish it myself, but for now I’m not going to continue reading it at bedtime.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling

I’ve been trading off, reading chapters from A Wizard of Earthsea some nights, and chapters from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (or at least half-chapters, since many of the chapters are very long) on other nights.

This Harry Potter book is really dragging. Reading it out loud reveals this; I read it years ago and don’t remember it as being so weak and scattered. There are fun episodes — for example, the scene with Potter in the Prefect’s bathroom, visited by Moaning Myrtle. But there are a lot of parts that feel muddled, and some scenes don’t make a lot of sense, with detail apparently pulled out of thin air and abandoned. For example, we learn that the village of Hogsmeade apparently is right next to an un-named, and previously un-mentioned, mountain. Rowling seems to have created this so she would have a place to put a cave, the cave where Sirius Black and Buckbeak are hiding out.

Rowling also describes a stile and I had to look that up, as I was initially imagining a turnstile. There’s not much sense of place. It’s just a location somewhere vaguely in space near Hogsmeade, sort of like when you walk past all the scenery in a video game.

Meanwhile the plot is dragging, and although there’s a vague sense of menace from the goings-on with Barty Crouch, Mad-Eye Moody, and Snape, it doesn’t seem to be taking us anywhere. This one really needed some more editing. It’s one of the episodes where the movie is actually better than the book.

I was mentioning something about The Goblet of Fire on Twitter and got a recommendation to listen to The Quibbler Podcast. The show’s description reads:

A Harry Potter book club for grownups. Heather Price-Wright and Alex Dalenberg make their way through the Harry Potter books, chapter by chapter. We analyze avada kedavra. We dissect Dumbledore. We question quidditch. And we hail Hermione. Join us as we go as deep as you’ve always wanted to into the books that defined our childhoods. Alohamora—the door is open.

I’ve listened to a couple of episodes. It’s two nerds having fun talking in excrutiating detail about the books, literally chapter-by-chapter — what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s an interesting reference or call-back. It’s well-produced. Interleaved with the discussion are clips from the audiobook. It just so happens that they’re releasing episodes now that correspond exactly to where I am in my re-reading of Goblet. I’d like to play some of the episodes for the kids, but they aren’t quite for kids. As the description says, these are for adults re-reading the books, who want to go deep down the rabbit hole.

I really admire the effort that the creators are putting into the podcast, but the truth is that I am just not quite a big enough fan of the originals to love this podcast the way it deserves to be loved. The Harry Potter books did not define my childhood. The first one wasn’t even published in the United States until I was thirty, and I don’t recall hearing about them at all until the start of the year 2000. As a result, I don’t love them uncritically; while I think the first one is unimpleachably a great, well-paced and fun book, I tend to look at the later ones with a pretty jaundiced eye. More’s the pity, honestly. I would love it if I had more books that I could simply love uncritically, but my mind doesn’t work that way, especially as I get older.

The Glen Carrig Remastered

Now that I have a reasonably good-sounding recording studio setup for podcasts, I’ve started to chip away at a project I’ve wanted to do for a long time: re-recording The Boats of the Glen Carrig. In 2006 I recorded a reading of Hodgson’s novel and mixed it with music that was available under a Creative Commons license. The original episodes are still available and you can read the blog post for the first chapter here.

I was never really happy with the audio quality I achieved in that project. I’ve written at exhausting length in the past about all the technical problems I had with various microphones, and I won’t rehash that all here. I do still like my choice of music and the atmospheric combination of music and narration I achieved back then. Listening in 2017, I know I should be able to do better, both in technical quality and in my performance.

So, I’ve started re-recording the narration. It’s hard. Here’s a little bit of the text:

We had gone a little way among the trees, when, suddenly, one who was with us cried out that he could see something away on our right, and we clutched everyone his weapon the more determinedly, and went towards it. Yet it proved to be but a seaman’s chest, and a space further off, we discovered another. And so, after a little walking, we found the camp; but there was small semblance of a camp about it; for the sail of which the tent had been formed, was all torn and stained, and lay muddy upon the ground. Yet the spring was all we had wished, clear and sweet, and so we knew we might dream of deliverance.

Hodgson uses a deliberately archaic style in the book, since the text it presents was supposedly written in 1757. His sentences are crazy. Try reading that out loud and getting all the pauses and breaks in the right place. How do you even pronounce “determinedly,” anyway?

I’m not sure if I’ll be able to complete this project anytime soon; after all, it took me months, back in 2006, and back then I had both more time to myself, and more stamina. But we’ll see.

On the Horizon

I’ve got a heap of books from the Blueberry Book Barn, including more story collections, and some Ballard. I also picked up a recent edition of E. R. Eddison’s Zimiamvian books: The Worm Ouroboros, Mistress of Mistresses, A Fish Dinner in Memison, and The Mezentian Gate. I have read The Worm Ouroboros before, and it’s an amazing book. I’ve long wanted to record it. A couple of nights ago I stayed up reading part of it to my wife, Grace. But although I’ve owned old copies of the other three books before, I’ve never really gotten a foothold on the so-called Zimiamvian Trilogy. It’s time to give it a shot.

Ypsilanti, Michigan
August 28th - September 9th, 2017