Thursday, December 24, 2015

Reading List -- Recent SF (Part I)

Thunder and Lightning -- John Varley

1. Red Thunder (2004)
2. Red Lightning (2006)
3. Rolling Thunder (2008)
4. Dark Lightning (2014)

A Heinleinian garage spaceship story -- a group of teens build a spaceship out of a railroad tank car to win a race to Mars.  Sequels follow.

Gregory Benford and Larry Niven
Bowl of Heaven (2012)
Shipstar (2014)

An expedition to a star is interrupted when it encounters an immense bowl-shaped structure in space.  Alien encounters and revelations of human's place in the universe ensue.

The Quantum Thief Trilogy -- Hannu Rajaniemi

1. The Quantum Thief (2010)
2. The Fractal Prince (2012)
3. The Causal Angel (2014)

Broken out of a quantum prison, a con-man is given a chance to finish the heist he left unfinished.  Two more books follow.  Reportedly the middle volume is the weakest of the three.

Redshirts (2012) -- John Scalzi

What if the redshits realized the danger they were really in?

My Real Children (2014) -- Jo Walton

A woman at the end of her life looks back at her two sets of memories of her life. Spoiler: alternate histories, two of them.

The Three-Body Problem (2014) -- Cixin Liu

Signals sent into space from a secret Chinese military project in the 1960s reach aliens whose civilization is on the brink of collapse.  The aliens decide to invade Earth.

Lockstep (2014) -- Karl Schroeder

A seventeen-year old ends up being in suspended animation for 14,000 years and wakes up to find that his family is (still) in control of the Space Empire.  And his family isn't very nice.  Adventure ensues.

The Expanse -- James S. A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck)

1. Leviathan Wakes (2011)
2. Caliban's War (2012)
3. Abaddon's Gate (2013)
4. Cibola Burn (2014)
5. Nemesis Gate (2015)

The series that the TV show The Expanse is based on.  Starts with an ice miner stumbling on a secret in a derelict, abandoned ship that could throw the solar system into war.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Major Pop Culture That I Have Missed (Part III)

Today's installment is about major TV shows in the last few years that I missed out on.

Deadwood (2004-2006)

Set in the old West, about society-building and with more profanity than The Wire, Deadwood is held up to be one of the best shows of the last ten years. And I've certainly had opportunity to watch the three-season run, but the furthest I've gotten is watching one or two episodes. It is one of the shows on my long list and one of these days I will get to it, but so far I haven't felt like I need to drop everything and consume it.

The Sopranos (1999-2007)

See all of the words of high praise above and put them here too. The long-running mob drama seems to have made its impact in the culture. However, when it first started and was aired on CTV I watched the first episode. The first episode has a very grisly strangulation scene which put me off the entire show. I've never gone back and so far I don't plan to.

Terriers (2010)

There have been many single-season shows that have shown promise and even brilliance, then have been cancelled. My So Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, Rubicon, Nowhere Man, and others. Terriers is one of the most recent examples of this. It is also a show that is high up on my to-watch list, I just haven't gotten to it yet. About unlicenced private investigators in California and somewhat reminicent of The Rockford Files, the critics went crazy over this one. The only advantage of shows like this being cancelled is that it is easier to catch up with them. Though, like Rubicon, Terriers has not been released on disc yet.

Ranma 1/2 (animation, TV 1989-1992 + various sequels)

When I got into anime in my late teens, Ranma 1/2 numbered over a hundred episodes (161 of the TV show alone). It was a popular comedy-martial arts show at the time, but I had to draw the line somewhere. Watching over a hundred episodes at that time on VHS was a feat and honestly, as significant as the title was, I wasn't particularily drawn to it. I know the premise, a magical spring turns people into the last thing that was in it and that transformation happens every time they are exposed to water. Although I have since lifted by self-imposed ban on longer series (over the last several years I've made my way through Rose of Versailles and Turn A Gundam), and I plan to watch at least parts of Urusei Yatsura and One Piece, I've never felt it necessary to go back to catch up with Ranma 1/2.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Major Pop Culture That I Have Missed (Part II)

Continuing on with some of the major pop culture phenomena that I have not experienced, this time turning to books.

The books of Anne McCaffrey

Anne McCaffrey died this past week. Many of my friends read her books and were huge fans of them. I even promised one of those friends that I would read one of them. However, at least eighteen years have passed since then and I still have not read any of her books. I'm not really sure why. I certainly have nothing against her science-fiction flavoured fantasy novels of dragons and dragonriders. I guess I always had other fantasy and science fiction books to read (many of which I still have to read), so I never made time for her books.

The books of John Bellairs

The House With a Clock In Its Walls. The Face In the Frost. I have a feeling that I would love these books now. Perhaps even then. However, when I was a child I was very afraid of scary things. And Edward Gorey's illustrations were scary. I now love Edward Gorey's illustrations and I appreciate his humour. However, the younger version of me couldn't stand them. And as the vast majority of Bellair's books had illustrations by Gorey, I avoided them.

The Hardy Boys

Okay, I have read some of the Hardy Boys books, just not very many -- maybe two or three. I even had the detective guide featuring them.

I was a huge mystery fan in the middle grades, and the supernatural mysteries of Betty Ren Wright (The Dollhouse Murders) along with Willo Davis Roberts' View From the Cherry Tree, The Ghost Squad series (E. W. Hildick), and the puzzle mysteries of Donald Sobol (Encyclopedia Brown, Two-Minute Mysteries), along with The Three Investigators (my formula series of choice) kept me busy, so I never felt it necessary to read The Hardy Boys.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Fun of Switching Bodies

Last night I caught up with last week's episode of Lost Girl, "Original Skin." It was a body-switch story, with all of the main characters (including Dyson's new girlfriend). The cause of the switch was beer spiked with gorgon's blood. Part of the fun of this type of episode is that actors can act like other characters, often to comic effect (as well as realizing the desires of some of the audiece to have certain pairs of characters kiss who wouldn't normally). "Original Skin" certainly took advantage of these elements.

In the body-switch episode in Utena, after an encounter with some explosive curry, Utena and Anthy switch bodies. Seeing Utena submissive and passive, while Anthy is playing sports and active is a fun contrast (even a number of characters comment on it). Likewise, in "Original Skin" characters who have opposite traits inhabit eachother's bodies. Über-masculine Dyson posseses the body of party girl Kenzie, and Kenzie, Dyson's body. Unlike some other body-switch episodes though, the body switch isn't just for laughs -- the characters realize new things about eachother. Kenzie detects what Dyson lost at the end of season one and Dyson realizes just how frail yet awesome Kenzie is. (Oh, and it turns out that she should be wearing glasses.)

This added element to the story speaks to the show's development of characters for its viewers. While there are certainly story elements that are included (such as the return of the Nain Rouge), Dyson's observations about Kenzie go more towards adding interesting traits that probably won't have a sigificant role in the story, and adds more information about her that we didn't know before. I can guarantee though that from last week on, fans will add the fact that Kenzie is near-sighted when desiring her to new viewers in the same way that they will note what Dyson gave up to the Norn to viewers coming in a the beginning or middle of season two.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Forming a List (Anime, Part VI)

Continuing on with another title, another favourite of mine.

Revolutionary Girl Utena

Created by the Be-Papas group, including director Kunihiko Ikuhara (Sailor Moon S), scriptwriter Yoji Enokido (FLCL, RahXephon), animator Shinya Hasegawa (Sailor Moon SuperS), and manga artist Chiho Saito (Magnolia Waltz), Revolutionary Girl Utena (Utena) is the story of a girl, Utena Tenjou, who dresses in a boy's uniform and whose goal is to be a prince (who actively saves those in need). With roots in Tezuka's Princess Knight and Ikeda's Rose of Versailles, Be-Papas takes elements of these classic shows, blends them with new elements and makes their own creation.

Utena is drawn into mysterious duels between the student council members of her school, Ohtori Academy, for control over the passive Anthy Himemiya who tends to her rose garden. In the first story arc after Utena almost accidently wins control of Anthy, the other members of the student council fight her. And in turn, each of those characters is developed and their backgrounds and motivations revealed. The second arc introduces a rival group of duelists, the Black Rose Duelists, who try to win Anthy. This second group of duelists consist of secondary characters that we have already met, and who have close relationships with student council members that are ultimately unsatisfying in some aspect. Although the most formulaic arc, the second arc is one of my favourites because of the character development of characters that would normally be left in the shadows. The third and fourth arcs follow, taking the story forward in questioning who Utena wants to be and what the duels are being conducted for.

Utena is presented in a stylized surrealism -- Ohtori Academy is full of mysteries, shadow girls (literally shadow silhouettes on the walls who give commentary like a Greek chorus), a dueling arena with an upside down floating castle, repressed feelings and emotions -- it makes for a unique viewing experience.

The TV series was followed by a movie, The Adolescence of Utena, which is not a recap of the TV series, nor a retelling, but while set in a very different world (Ohtori Academy is even more surreal, with moving classrooms and stairwells) it resolves many of the unresolved story threads from the TV series.

Ikuhara's latest project is Mawaru Penguindrum, and it is facinating to watch for similar elements as appeared in Utena popping up, but in very different contexts. Penguindrum so far hasn't conveyed the same level of repression and melodrama, but it is a worthy successor to Utena in style.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Major Pop Culture That I Have Missed (Part I)

Today I saw The Muppets, the new film from Jason Segel (and directed by James Robin, who also directed Flight of the Conchords and Da Ali G Show). I have a confession to make though: growing up I did not watch The Muppet Show.

More acurately, I did not watch it very often. I have watched plenty of Sesame Street and Muppet Babies, and over the years I have seen a lot of footage from The Muppet Show. I do have vague memories of seeing it at my paternal Grandma's house sporatically -- but I don't remember watching it regularily. Likewise, I although I am sure I have seen some of the Muppet movies, I do not remember them very well which probably means I only saw them once or a very few times. In contrast, I remember seeing the Sesame Street film Follow That Bird (featuring Big Bird) in theatre.

It seems that for my generation (those of us born in the late 1970s and early 1980s), many elements of the pop culture that we grew up on is coming back in various forms. Transformers, one of the pop culture staples of my childhood which I was obsessive over for years, has been remade into three blockbuster films (none of which seem to be written as well as a single episode of the mid-1980s cartoon). DVD boxsets of many standouts of my childhood cartoon watching have been released in the last handful of years including The Real Ghostbusters and Transformers.

The reason for this resurgence of 1980s cartoons is clear. Those of us who grew up watching the shows are nostalgic for them and for the most part are in our 30s and are willing to buy them. Maybe with the excuse that we will show them to the next generation, or more honestly so we can see if there was really anything in what we remember so fondly.

With the deluge of all of this media and the release of The Muppets this week, I am reminded of what I have missed over the years. Some things I was aware of and purposely avoided (like G.I. Joe), others I realize in retrospect I would have loved, but wasn't exposed to (like Animaniacs in the 1990s).

Fraggle Rock (1983-1985)

Another of Jim Henson's creations that I didn't follow as avidly as others. I have thought for years that I was just a little too young for it at the time it was originally on, but there are plenty of people my age (33) who were into it. At the time though I wasn't aware of any of them, one the neighbours who was two years older than me was really into it. I was aware of the show and I probably saw at least some of the episodes, but I don't remember watching it very much.

G.I. Joe (the animated series, 1985-1986)

One of the things that Hasbro did very well with G.I. Joe and Transformers, was make characters who had very defined roles. Although I never had any G.I. Joe toys, I do remember sometimes looking at the boxes in the toy departments of department stores and being facinated by the different jobs each had -- from munitions experts to strategy to driving (I'm making these up, but they're probably accurate). For Transformers, the function, tech specs (which originally you sort of needed the clear red plastic to read because the blue line graphing out the different attributes was obscured by red lines), picture and description -- along with the comics and the cartoon -- fueled years of internal fantasy over the characters. (The toys were a bit of a disappointment in comparrison.)

I never got into G.I. Joe though and if I did watch an episode of the cartoon, it wasn't until I was an adult. It was popular at the same time as Transformers, and my heart was with Transformers.

Transformers (the animated series, seasons 2, 3 and 4; late 1985-1987)

What? you may be asking. Yes, I was a huge Transformers fan. Yes, to a degree I still am (at least of Generation One). And yes, I saw Transformers: The Movie in theatre and still remember in despair when Siskel and Ebert gave it a thumbs down review. Optimus Prime's death in the movie was one of the major cultural events of my childhood. I'm not sure exactly what happened that caused this gap, but I have an idea.

Transformers was a multi-media experience for me. I watched the cartoon, I played with the toys (well, more live action roleplayed the characters with my friends) and read the comics. The first issue of the comic that I bought was #8. It featured the Dinobots on the cover and was one of the things that made me a reader. I followed the comics for years. However, with the cartoon series, I remember the first season (1984, only sixteen episodes) and the movie (1986). However, the rest of the cartoon series, especially after the movie, I don't remember. That is, with one notable exception. At the local video rental store I found a copy of The Return of Optimus Prime. I am pretty sure that I rented it and watched it, but I didn't watch a lot of the animated series after that. Of course, having said that, at the same time I continued to read the comic (which had started pretty dark) and the UK comics (which had started to be imported by the time I was in grade 6) which went to even darker and more experimental places than the American series did at that point.

By the time I was in grade 6 (1989-90) the other factor was that the animated series was not on as much and the videos that were available were only of a handful of episodes. (I remember watching the first three episodes of season one -- especially the beginning part of the first episode when the characters are in their Cybertronian vehicle forms before being changed by the Ark to resemble Earth vehicles.)

This is no longer a concern though, with the release of the complete series, first by Rhino, then by Time Warner. The entire run of Transformers is there for my consumption, whenever I want it.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Dragonmeet, What Cthulhloid Goodess Will You Bring?

The British gaming convention organized by Cubicle 7 is this weekend. A year ago I didn't even know that Dragonmeet existed, let alone what it was called, this year I've been waiting with anticipation.

That's because some of the best Cthulhu-related products in English are coming from the UK these days. Cubicle 7's Cthulhu Britannica line is providing sourcebooks about 1920s England and Scotland (so far the only book on Wales is in German). Also in this UK-oriented line is the first boxset for Call of Cthulhu in nearly twenty years, focusing on London. After Bookhounds of London (and the Occult Guide to London) from the Trail of Cthulhu line (Pelgrane Press), it'll be interesting to see how this boxset compares.

(Speaking of Trail of Cthulhu, the Eternal Lies campaign is also getting closer to its release, possibly as early as late summer in 2012.)

Not everything is coming from the UK though. One of Chaosium's monographs that is also slowly nearing completion is the guide for the classic Masks of Nyarlethotep campaign.

All in all, the stars seem to be right for some Cthulhu gaming.