Tuesday Links (05/29/12)

Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived: An Oatmeal comic.

Nikola Tesla Wasn’t God and Thomas Edison Wasn’t the Devil: The Forbes response.

I wrote a response to the Forbes article about my Tesla comic: The response to the response.

Could a Rendezvous with Rama Movie Capture the Wonder of the Book?: A comic critique.

Book Review: 1Q84

Before its English-language release, even, in fact, before the original Japanese books were published, speculation ran rampant about this long novel. What would it be about? What did it have to do with George Orwell’s original work? What was the significance of the “Q”, replacing the nine of the original title?

Haruki Murakami is unquestionably the most well-known Japanese-language writer in the international literary scene. He’s also critically-acclaimed, having collected a litany of high-profile literary awards throughout the world. He’s made odds-makers short lists for the Nobel Prize in Literature the last several years, though he hasn’t won, yet.

1Q84 is a 900-page opus. Originally published in three volumes in Japan, the individual books really don’t stand alone. As with Tolkien’s “trilogy”, it was likely a question of length alone. The English translation has been published as a single volume in both Canada and the United States, by publishers Bond Street Books and Knopf, respectively.

The letter Q and the number 9 in Japanese are homonyms. Said out loud, the title of Murakami’s latest is identical to Orwell’s 1984, when the numbers are pronounced in Japanese. The attractive hardcover also has some unusual typesetting. The book title and page numbers are mirror-reversed on opposite pages. The Q suggests we are in a different world than that imagined by Orwell. The typesetting suggests we are in a different world from our own.

Set in 1984 Tokyo, the novel follows the stories of two apparently unconnected protagonists in alternating chapters. At the novel’s opening, Aomame is a young woman on her way to an important business meeting but is stuck in traffic on the expressway. Dressed smartly and professionally, she nevertheless takes the unorthodox action of leaving her taxi and climbing over the guard rail, climbing down a rickety emergency stairway in order to make her meeting on time. We soon discover why the timing was so important: she’s a professional hit-woman on her way to kill a man.

Tengo, by contrast, is a gentle young man meeting with his editor about an unusual manuscript submission for a literary contest. A part-time math instructor and technically-competent amateur writer, he pushes his editor to consider the unpolished, but compelling story as a finalist. There’s something . . . magical about it. But it will never win, as rough as it is. So his editor, completely disdainful of either convention or ethics, suggests Tengo secretly rewrite the whole thing for the original author, as part of a conspiracy between the three of them.

Tengo doesn’t realize what he is getting himself into with his decision to rewrite the novella, Air Chrysalis. He obtains the permission of its mysterious author, the 17-year-old Fuka-eri, but still feels uneasy. As he learns more about the girl and her history, he begins to suspect that the events of the story may not be entirely fiction.

A ten-year-old girl living in a frightening cult, locked up in an ice-cold shed for 10 days with a dead, blind goat as punishment for some religious transgression — the mysterious Little People who are neither good nor evil, but clearly dangerous — the air chrysalis, whose purpose is unclear: there are hints that these are more than the figments of a teenage girl’s imagination.

But it’s Aomame, who can hardly be said to have an ordinary life to begin with, who is the first to notice that things in the world seem slightly off. She starts noticing odd items in the news, references to both local and global events of the past few years that she can’t believe she wouldn’t have heard of before. A huge shoot-out between Japanese police and an armed radical group with far-reaching policy consequences. A major US-Soviet joint project in space, at the height of the Cold War.

Of course Murakami is known for taking us down the rabbit hole. In the magical realism tradition of Borges, and Kafka before him, the Japanese author’s approach is to simply introduce one inexplicable event after another into his characters’ lives. In fact, down the rabbit hole may not be the right analogy for 1Q84 at all. One can climb back out of a rabbit hole. It’s more like the world itself has been twisted askew — as if somebody turned a crank and reality was irreparably bent into a new shape.

It’s how his characters cope with these situations Murakami throws at them which makes the story. Aomame spends hours going through microfilmed periodicals at the library, sure that the world she lives in has subtly changed from what it was before. But all the newspapers, the history books, even the collective memories of humankind are all consistent with each other, so how can she be sure it wasn’t her own mind which suffered the catastrophic change? Orwell understood the importance of a collective understanding of truth: propaganda and false histories featured heavily in his novel. Unmoored from history, we are helplessly adrift.

Murakami has a tendency to spend pages describing the mundane day-to-day tasks of his characters. But it’s not long-windedness that causes him to describe in detail a trip to the grocery store, or the preparation of miso soup and grilled fish. The mundane in his fiction serves as a counter-point, placing in stark contrast the disequilibrium his characters must contend with as logic is suspended around them.

As in real-life, the emotional and intellectual challenges his characters face are not resolved over hours or days, but months. Close to a year goes by in the course of this novel, and indeed, this timescale is typical of Murakami. Meanwhile, life goes on. Chores must be performed, classes must be taught.

Murakami’s Japanese perspective combined with his deep knowledge and love of Western literature produce a voice that is utterly unique. Though magical realism in the tradition of Borges is a defining part of Murakami’s literary DNA, his plotting takes less from the Argentine writer than Raymond Chandler, master of the hard-boiled detective novel.

Unasked for, Murakami’s characters find themselves embroiled in mysteries as convoluted as Philip Marlowe’s. Their response, a resigned stoicism, is deeply Japanese. But read the author’s translation work for more hints. The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye — caught up in forces beyond their control, you can see Holden Caulfield’s aimless acceptance, Jay Gatsby’s guarded hope. “Fatalism tempered with optimism” is the best one-phrase description I’ve managed to come up with for Murakami’s work.

Is 1Q84 the career-defining masterpiece some were predicting it would be? I don’t feel qualified to say. I think it’s on a par with The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Kafka by the Shore, which I consider his strongest works to date. It’s connection to the original 1984 is . . . indirect.

Orwell’s great fear was a trend towards totalitarian government. Murakami focuses, albeit obliquely, on religious cults, a topic he has tackled in his non-fiction (Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack). Both types of institution enslave minds. But his intention is probably less a direct indictment of the cult mentality than a reiteration of the larger themes we’ve seen in his previous fiction: societal alienation; existential angst.

If Murakami is warning us about anything, it’s probably the dangers of becoming disconnected from our lives. Both political and religious extremism are, in that view, just symptoms of the problem.

(Bond Street Books, 2011)

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright (2012) The Green Man Review

Book Review: Vortex

When I read Spin back in 2005, I was awoken to a whole new world of what science fiction could do. This guy, Robert Charles Wilson, a veteran by any standard yet new to me, balanced the grandly cosmic and the tragically human with a subtlety that’s almost sublime. But when I read his follow-up to the story of the Spin and the Hypothetical beings behind it, I felt like he lost that balance.

While Spin proposed one of the great SF scenarios, the sort of “Big Idea” that would make any Golden Age or contemporary hard science fiction writer proud, Wilson quickly made it clear that it was those insignificant, ant-like humans whose story he was really interested in telling. In Axis, it seems, he was suddenly more interested in exploring that Big Idea. But the characters didn’t grab me and without them as an anchor, I didn’t feel the need to find out the truth about the Hypotheticals.

But he pulled me back in with Vortex. Suddenly I cared about the characters again, the returning cast as well as the new ones. Coincident with, if not because of that, he got me interested in the central mystery of the Hypotheticals themselves. These are the inscrutable beings who set up the Spin, a local distortion in time with the effect of taking humanity to the death throes of its own Sun within a single generation. By the end of Vortex, we get to find out why, and the answer is, to me, appropriate and satisfying.

The story follows a dual narrative in alternating chapters. In the immediate aftermath of the Spin, vagrancy and mental illness are still way up, while a world tries to cope with being thrown epochs into the future, surviving the overwhelming energy of their own expanded Sun only at the mercy of an inscrutable and possibly indifferent alien technology.

Sandra is one of these overworked mental health professionals, Officer Bose is one good cop in a deeply crooked system, and Orrin Mather is the recently remanded ward of the state neither of them can quite figure out.

It’s in Orrin Mather’s notebooks that we find the second narrative, but, paradoxically, it tells the story of two people who will live nearly 10, 000 years in the future. Turk Findley we last saw at the close of the previous book: taken up bodily into a Hypothetical technology called a temporal arch. His new friend, Treya, was born in the era he finds himself expelled into. Together they are under the custody of an emotionally- and mentally-linked political collective called Vox, which hopes to meet and, perhaps, become one with the Hypotheticals. For the two of them, alone amongst the enforced consensus of Vox, there is doubt as to whether this is a desirable outcome.

Whether Mather, a mentally-challenged, barely literate young man, could have written the stories found in these notebooks himself is dubious. But the possibility that they are true is far less likely (if not to the reader).

I wasn’t sure if I would read the final book in this trilogy after being let down by the second. But I’m glad I did. If you’ve already read Axis and were thinking of skipping Vortex, you should reconsider.

If you’ve read Spin only, that’s a tougher call. Wilson himself has said that Spin is a stand-alone novel that happens to have two sequels. You can’t really skip the middle novel and jump to the end, as the latter two are more of a package deal. So the question is, is it worth reading Axis, which is good, but not great, in order to set up Vortex?

The story of the characters from Spin is over by novel’s end, but the mystery of the Hypotheticals remains. If you want resolution to the Big Idea plot points, keep reading. If you were more interested in the human side of things, you can reasonably stop with Spin. Wilson’s Hugo-winner is an exceptional novel taken on its own. But the series as a whole has its merits, as well.

(Tor, 2011)

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright (2012) The Green Man Review

Tuesday Links (05/22/12)

The Revolution SF Watercooler: HP Lovecraft and Racism: “The real issue is whether a reader finds his work worthy despite the worst parts of his personality.”

The Avengers Inside Hopper’s Iconic Nighthawks Painting: Yep.

Going to a rock concert is different when you’re 60: This guy writing for the Globe and Mail? I know this guy. Awesome guy.

Book Review: Earthbound

As series go, the trilogy comprised of Joe Haldeman’s Marsbound, Starbound, and Earthbound novels is a bit of an oddity. On the one hand, each book has been a direct sequel of the previous, picking up the narrative right where it was left off. Carmen Dula also remains the protagonist and narrator throughout the books. On the other hand, the plots of each novel, while hardly self-contained, could hardly be more different.

Read the rest of my review at Revolution Science Fiction.

DVD Review: American Dad: Volume 7

American Dad is still at this sweet spot in its primetime tenure where the writers and actors have all found their voice, but the show hasn’t yet started to get stale. I said much the same thing when I reviewed the previous season’s DVD release, and I would say much the same thing about the season which is currently airing. Seasons five, six, and seven have all been of a consistently high quality.

The big change at the beginning of season six (which is what volume seven actually is; the skewed numbering is due to some weird partial-season releases for the first few years of the show) was the addition of a new regular cast member. Daughter Hailey marries her on-again, off-again boyfriend Jeff in the season opener. Also in that episode (which was episode 100), no less than 100 characters on the show were killed.

That’s not the only amibitious episode stunt, however. Following up on the previous season’s impressive armageddon/Christmas episode, “Rapture’s Delight”, this year’s holiday mini-movie involves a battle royale against Santa Claus and an army of bloodthirsty elves.

Other standouts include “Son of Stan”, wherein Steve is cloned and each parent raises their Steve their own way; “The People vs. Martin Sugar”, wherein Stan is determined to see Roger pay for the crimes of one of his many personas; and “I Am the Walrus”, which sees Stan compete against his son to maintain his position as alpha male.

The strength of the show is the diversity of its characters, and the unique chemistry found in each combination. Everyone from Stan, the titular “dad”, wife Francine, daughter Hailey, and son Steve get significant screentime, and are paired in varying combinations. Speaking for myself, at least, I never find myself disappointed when I see an episode will be focused on a particular character.

The show is a MacFarlane creation, and a close cousin to Family Guy and The Cleveland Show, but Seth has had little to do with it since inception, and its writing team has their own thing going. What’s interesting is that the original show concept was born of the Bush administration and was heavily about lampooning right-wing thinking, but has grown so far beyond this simple premise.

Stan Smith is still a CIA operative, a gun-toting Republican and has all kinds of hard-line opinions against real-world evidence and even internal consistency. But the show’s liberal Hollywood writers couldn’t help but fall in love with him over the years, and the series has seen him develop beyond his initial two-dimensional conception.

Over the years, Stan has learned to tolerate his hippie daughter and her stoner boyfriend, his gay neighbours and their adopted baby, different religious beliefs, even the ultimate illegal alien, the obnoxious Roswell escapee who lives in the family’s attic and couldn’t be more different from him but has somehow become his best friend.

The extras on this set are standard, including a number of featurettes, deleted scenes for each episode, and maybe half as many commentaries as episodes. Curse words and one or two bits of brief nudity are also present in the uncut DVD episodes, while they were censored in the broadcast versions.

The commentaries are, on the whole, a little weaker than those of the previous release. As with season five, actors, writers, and/or directors get in a room, watch an episode, and chat without much preparation beforehand or guidance during. This approach sometimes results in some very interesting discussions, but not always.

The more analytical commentaries from “The Institute for American Dad Studies”, comprised of three doctoral candidates in various areas of media studies, also fell a little flat for me this time around. A highlight on last year’s release, the commentaries on this DVD set were plagued by long silences when no one could think of anything to say.

Hey, it happens sometimes. But a strong season with a lot of solid extras still leave fans with little to complain about on this release.

(20th Century Fox, 2012)

Reprinted with permission from The Sleeping Hedgehog
Copyright (2012) The Sleeping Hedgehog

Tuesday Links (05/15/12)

Every Major’s Terrible: Sung to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Modern Major General”: “Why anyone who wants a job would study lit’s a mystery/unless their only other choice were something like art history. . . .”

Who’s In the Epic Fantasy Avengers?: “King Arthur would be perfect in assuming the leadership role that Captain America provides. He knows how to run the show, how to fight, and how to give people ideals to fight for. Instead of a shield, he’s got one badass sword — Excalibur is sort of like having a super power all to itself.”

DVD Review: Bob’s Burgers: Season 1

Bob’s Burgers joined the Fox’s Sunday night “Animation Domination” line-up as a pilot in January of 2011. The primetime slate being so dominated by MacFarlane’s three shows (not to mention The Simpsons, which is approaching a quarter-century), it seemed to me that creator Loren Bouchard (a co-creator of the underrated classic, Home Movies) had a tough nut to crack.

But this quirky little show has proven a nice change of pace from the generally excellent, but inbred writing pool of Family Guy et al. While these shows are absurd, whacky, cynical, and often-times highly offensive, Bob’s Burgers can be quietly sweet even as it employs the sort of awkward, human humour that made the early seasons of The Office so disarming.

In common with that show (and Bouchard’s earlier Home Movies) there’s clearly a certain degree of improvisation in the dialogue, which is the base of most of the show’s humour. The actors involved each seem to have a talent for this, and it makes for a certain sense of realism that more tightly-scripted shows lack (which is not to say this is an improv show; it still follows a script).

Bob Belcher and family run a burger restaurant, which makes an excellent product, but barely pays its bills each month (it’s tough being a burger man in a seafood town, Bob laments in one episode). Bob is a somewhat world-weary, but cautiously-optimistic character, well-voiced by Home Movies veteran H. Jon Benjamin (who played Coach McGurk as well as Jason).

(Other voices I recognized from Bouchard’s earlier show include Mort the Mortician and Hugo the Health Inspector; comedians Andy Kindle and Sam Seder, respectively.)

Bob’s wife Linda is also precious and likeable, but it’s the three kids that make the show. Eldest daughter Tina (played by Dan Mintz), is enormously and hilariously awkward. A young girl’s budding sexuality is rarely explored for its comedic opportunities, while the nerdy pubescent boy is fast becoming something of a cliché. But this is a lost opportunity, as Tina shows us.

She falls in love with her martial arts instructor (“Sexy Dance Fighting”), has a crush on an entire minor-league baseball team (“Torpedo”), and draws a nude portrait of her dentist when she learns to paint (“Art Crawl”). In the first episode, she makes uncomfortable every person she meets with questions about a rash on her groin (which the health inspector writes up on his report as a violation: “rashy grill-cook”). A running gag is her complicated feelings about zombies; she admits they are dangerous, but she just “love[s] their swagger”.

Meanwhile, youngest daughter, Louise (played by Kristen Schaal, and the only Belcher to actually be voiced by a woman), is a master manipulator and unrepentant prankster. She frequently takes advantage of both her siblings and her less intelligent classmates. My favourite exchange (so far) occurs between her and Bob in “Art Crawl”, when she bails him out of a debt with a hefty wad of bills she skimmed off of gullible art-buying tourists:

Bob: Where did you get that kind of money?
Louise: Shhhh. It’s Art Crawl.
Bob: Yeah, but where–
Louise: Shhh, shhhhhhh, shut your mouth. . . . Art Crawl.

The DVD extras are great. Various featurettes, including the original version of the show as pitched to the network, give a lot of insight into the thinking that went behind the genesis of this weird, burger-selling family. I was surprised to learn, for example, that the family originally had two sons and a youngest daughter, but the network asked for a change and Daniel became Tina. Dan Mintz, however, continued to do the voice in almost exactly the same way.

And every single one of the season’s thirteen episodes has a commentary track — in some cases two. We get to hear from writers, voice actors, and producers, in various combinations. Fans needn’t be disappointed that their favourite episode has no behind-the-scenes info in this DVD set.

Bob’s Burgers has proven a nice, understated addition to the Sunday night animated lineup, one whose often-subtler humour nevertheless causes me to laugh out loud more frequently than anything else I’m currently watching. And I like that it all comes from a good place.

Hated restaurant rivals and bitter ex-boyfriend health inspectors aside, one gets a genuine sense of love and support between the characters of this show: the sometimes frustrated Bob, the naive and awkward Tina, even the scheming Louise. It’s hard not to care about each of these characters, even as we laugh at their too-human foibles.

(20th Century Fox, 2012)

Reprinted with permission from The Sleeping Hedgehog
Copyright (2012) The Sleeping Hedgehog