Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Thoughts on artificial gravity

Last week I was watching the prestige science fiction film Arrival and it made me think about Star Trek and Star Wars.

Wait - stop! No, come back! Hear me out!

In Arrival the mysterious alien ships visiting Earth can be accessed by their human visitors through a sort of airlock. Because the ship has artificial gravity on board this causes people entering the ship to suddenly float at a right-angle as they shift from Earth's gravity to that of the ship's.

It's a moment meant to emphasize the strangeness of encountering another species but it caused me to reflect on how this science is normally used in science fiction. Some science fiction avoids the question of gravity aboard ships at all, preferring zero-gravity environments. But in Star Trek and Star Wars, the world's two most popular science fiction franchises, artificial gravity is a given.

The issues surrounding artificial gravity rarely come up on Star Trek. From time to time there would be a gravity failure on one of the ships. Enterprise, being the series set at the chronologically earliest point of the franchise, played with gravity a little more than the others - there were certain gravity glitches the characters would experience.

Yet Enterprise ignored an idea which Arrival explored - what about the airlock? That series frequently had alien visitors board the ship through its airlock (as transporter technology wasn't fully reliable). What would have happened if a visiting ship had to dock at a 90 degree angle because of its physical shape? What would a boarding sequence look like in that instance?

But then I began to think about artificial gravity in Star Wars and realized, "oh yeah - they have that too." Many have argued Star Wars is more fantasy than science fiction and I'm afraid I'm about to repeat that argument. Space and technology in the Star Wars films is extremely familiar and lived-in. Everyone is accustomed to being around some 200 different species at any given time, traveling through space at faster-than-light speeds is a given and the franchise's most popular vehicle is deemed "a piece of junk" by its universe's standards.

Where I would say Arrival and Star Trek hold concepts in common is that the characters experience a sense of awe and wonder as they're exposed to the wider universe. In Star Wars, all of the awe and wonder is calculated as an effect upon the audience, not so much as to be experienced by the characters. That is, we in the audience are supposed to think the Millennium Falcon is cool; those in the film do not.

What would exploration even look like in the Star Wars universe? It seems as though everything in that franchise has to be somehow connected to the Force. If you're mastering the Force, what else could the universe offer you? Among their thousands of culturally-acclimated aliens, why would people in the Star Wars universe want to go seeking another race? What purpose do planets serve in the Star Wars universe beyond military and commercial ventures?

The aliens in Arrival possess certain abilities (no spoilers offered) and the knowledge they carry changes the course of humanity. In Star Trek, various aliens have been shown to possess different abilities or cultural values which provide interesting contrasts against humanity's (one notable Trek race has the same abilities as the Arrival aliens). But in Star Wars, the only people credited with particular powers or beliefs worth coveting are those who use the Force. It is, as David Brin has argued, a pro-elitist perspective. For all that multiculturalism seems to be a universal norm in Star Wars (outside of the very British Imperials) the Force divides the universe into haves and have-nots. To paraphrase George Orwell, in Star Wars all people are equal but some are more equal than others.

And that's what the artificial gravity made me think of. Even Gravity didn't inspire me to think this much about gravity.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Rest in Peace June Foray

99 years is a pretty good run.

June Foray was one of the last living legends of the Old-Time Radio era. She was also a beloved voice actress in animation (Rocky & Bullwinkle, Looney Tunes) but radio sharpened my appreciation for her talents. She collaborated many times over the decades with Stan Freberg, including as a featured player on his all-too-brief Stan Freberg Show in 1957. You can hear the entire series at archive.org and I highly recommend you listen to them all - it was one of radio's funniest comedy programs.

She appeared all over radio - Family Theater, Lux Radio Theater, Command Performance, Favorite Story, CBS Radio Workshop, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show. She also performed in an episode of my favourite radio series Suspense - the 1956 version of "The Man Who Stole the Bible."

Thanks for the laughs, Ms. Foray.

Friday, July 21, 2017

"Now let's be perfectly clear, here." The Divided States of Hysteria #1-2 review

Although a tag for Howard Victor Chaykin already exists on this blog from previous articles I am not exactly a Chaykin fan. Most of the Chaykin comics I have read over the years have been stories he drew and someone else wrote. Of those stories I read which Chaykin did write & draw, I didn't find that they held my interest.

Chaykin has certainly been talked about in the comic book industry lately due to his new Image series The Divided States of Hysteria. Who would have thought a series with that title would rattle people's cages? Indeed, in an editorial found in issue #1 Chaykin recalls the first announcement of this series at Image Expo being greeted by "a neutral, mostly uninterested audience." That changed when issue #1 came out and several people (many of them comics industry professionals) were outraged by its contents, followed by a second outrage at the preview art for issue #4's cover, which resulted in a change of covers. All of that hit before issue #2 had even come out!

I attempted to follow the discussion but what I found difficult to ascertain was what exactly it was about issue #1 that people had a problem with. No one was posting panels or quoting dialogue to show what they hated. In fact, the response seemed to be "it's so terrible I can't even begin to tell you, so I won't." Lacking this context, I became more and more interested in the series. I hadn't paid attention to any of the promotion - I read the Image solicitations every month and the solicits for The Divided States of Hysteria left no impression on me. But now I was learning what it was about and that was... intriguing. I am, certainly, a reader willing to indulge viewpoints I don't agree with - witness my previous entries on this blog re: Steve Ditko or Dave Sim. Issue #1 was sold out but a 2nd print came out to coincide with issue #2.

Above all, The Divided States of Hysteria is an exercise in venting. This is an angry comic written by an angry man - an angry liberal man who sees much to be outraged by. The reaction to this series, then, is an outrage against outrage over the thing which outrages both groups. It is almost impossible to keep from seeing the content of this series (and the reaction to it) as emblematic of the ugly side of the USA as seen in last year's election. In The Divided States of Hysteria, one liberal points his finger and says, "Look at this hellhole we live in!" And his peers gasp, "How dare you draw our attention to that!"

But what is The Divided States of Hysteria actually about? It is set in the near-future shortly after the US President (presumably Trump) and most of his cabinet have been assassinated, but this has only led to even worse things for the state of the nation as people become more and more divided (hence the title). The central protagonist is Frank Villa, a Pentagon official who learns of a looming terrorist attack and fails to avert catastrophe. Consequently he loses his government job and is hired by a private firm to put together a team of operatives to hunt down the people responsible for the attack (a consortium of Muslim, black supremacist and white supremacist allies-of-convenience).

Villa's four operatives are introduced in issue #1 and recruited at the end of issue #2. Each is in prison when Villa finds them: Henry Noone is a black supremacist who went on killing spree which targeted only white people (obviously drawn from recent real life "anti-white" gunmen in the USA); Christopher Silver appears to be a transvestite sex worker who was assaulted by her three johns and shot them all to death; Paul Berg is an expert poisoner who preys on wealthy people ("the 1%" as he calls them); Cesare Nacamulli is a serial killer who targets random people to avoid forming identifiable patterns.

It's the character of Christopher Silver who provoked the aforementioned outrage. It's actually a little difficult to pin down Christopher's gender but she appears to be a man in women's clothing (no surgery); I use the term 'her' because it's what the story uses. She's introduced in a three-page sequence in #1 where she's seen with her three johns, who feign outrage upon 'discovering' she has a penis (Silver notes in her narration they knew that when they hired her and were pretending so that they could claim the "trap defense"). When the trio begin beating her she takes a gun from her purse and shoots them all dead. Christopher stands apart from the others because her punishment is unjust - she acted in self-defense, whereas the other three prisoners were sociopaths preying upon others: white people (Noone), the wealthy (Berg) or strangers (Nacamulli). Silver is picked for Villa's team not because she's in the same league as the others, but because the johns she killed were coincidentally linked to the terrorist network.

I can't bring myself to be outraged by the treatment of Silver because the story's perspective is that Christopher Silver was wronged. She is granted a righteousness the other anti-hero protagonists do not possess. For all I know, she'll turn out to be the conscience of this series (or then again, maybe there is no conscience). Chaykin has called this a "revenge story" so it stands to reason that the person who was wronged will attain vengeance by the tale's climax. I understand people speaking out against this comic book because they don't want to read it - they shouldn't. I can't bring myself to agree with those who don't want this book to exist - there, I must side with Chaykin's remark: "I’m being impugned from my side of the aisle–by the sort of people who say such things as “I’m all for artistic expression, but…” It’s that “but” that undercuts all that “…all for…” No, you’re not really. If that were the case, there’d be no buts."

I'm afraid my problems with The Divided States of Hysteria will be of little interest to anyone. Chaykin has a bad habit lately of abusing his pages with Photoshop. A behind-the-scenes feature in issue #1 shows the transformation of a page of Chaykin's pencils into the finished product and I much prefer the lines on the penciled page - whenever a Photoshop background or graphic is used it's wicked obvious and jarring. The use of computer-generated imagery to fill in details feels cheap, which I'm sure is intentional - Chaykin spent time with Wally Wood early in his career and one of Wood's mantras to his apprentices was "Never draw anything you can copy, never copy anything you can trace, never trace anything you can cut out and paste up." Wood would have loved Photoshop. Further confounding are the two kinds of lettering boxes, seen below:

First there's the blue narration boxes which look like they belong on a 1999 Geocities page (so says the owner of a 1999 Geocities page), then there are the speech balloons with their tiny, near-invisible tails which cause momentary confusion when trying to follow which person in the conversation is speaking. I've called out Chaykin's comics for this one before and I'm afraid I must again - letterer Ken Bruzenak: you are my least favourite part of this comic book. Your lettering consistently interferes with my ability to follow the story being told, which is just about the last thing lettering should do.

Perhaps because I am not a citizen of the USA I have a few degrees of removal from their toxic political culture and can better enjoy this book as an outlet of liberal rage. Certainly when I think about the state of politics in the US, I get a bit angry; mostly depressed. I am not one who normally advocates on behalf of offensive/provocative art - I say, 'well, I agree in principle with its right to express itself but I sure don't want to read it.' I don't enjoy exploitation films, the exploitation 'homages' of Tarantino, 'rape revenge' films, splatter films or 'torture porn'; I was never an angry youth so I never enjoyed young angry music. Yet here I've read these two issues for sake of getting better informed on the controversy and find myself interested in following the plot. Weirdly, then, for the first time in my life I find myself reading a Howard Chaykin comic book I'm willing to follow regularly. Uh... thanks, people who wanted this story banned!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Another article up at Hugo Award Book Club

This time I've written an article about robots entitled 'Who Own the Robot?' This one was intended to provoke a little discussion so you are most welcome to head over and comment (I will be monitoring comments both here & there).

Sunday, July 2, 2017

New essay up at Hugo Book Club

The Hugo Book Club blog has graciously published an essay I wrote about science fiction. The essay is about the many science fiction authors who have dabbled with pseudoscience and cultish beliefs. It's entitled "Pseudoscience, Belief and Science Fiction." Check out the blog, they have a wealth of knowledge about science fiction past and present.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

On being Canadian

Some say we Canadians have no national identity - that our culture is too fluid, mercurial to be defined. Others claim we are only defined in the ways we differ from our neighbours to the south. Perhaps we spend too much breath protesting our independence from the UK and difference from the USA. It seems at times as though Canada is defined primarily by bilingual signage, kilometers, maple syrup and hockey.

My own Canadian experience has been spent in the province of Alberta, never residing in any other province or territory, never visiting the north territories, never venturing further east than Quebec. I'm from the province of cows, oil and gas, the supposedly Conservative stronghold (recently, said stronghold has rather crumbled). The redneck province, living in the city where guests are invited to don white cowboy hats.

I grew up thinking myself rather conservative, yet never understood the 'redneck' culture. I grew up in a small town with a 12 acre property, but I didn't wear cowboy hats, I couldn't stand country music, I didn't enjoy watching rodeos, feared riding horses and I didn't drink until I was an adult - and even then, it look me years to find a taste for beer. As to oil & gas? The two years I spent working in that sector gave me valuable experience but my employer was simply terrible; it was dispiriting place to work.

My city will soon be invaded by swarms of those who wish to see the Calgary Stampede, to watch chuckwagon races and hear popular bands. In the 19 years I've lived in this city I've visited the Stampede all of once. If that were the epitome of Calgary culture I would feel very distanced indeed.

But this is Canada. I've never identified myself to a particular political party (instead, I call myself 'centrist') and I love that. I have voted for virtually every political party possible, even parties which clearly had no hope of winning a seat, provided I agreed with their platform. I like my national anthem and I feel proud when I sing it at a hockey game. When I visit Africa I wear the Canadian flag on my luggage and pinned to my shirt because I'm proud to let them know where I hail from. In turn, I've found that those nations like my own.

I have Canadian heroes: Romeo Dallaire, Lester B. Pearson, my uncle Dr. Stephen Foster, William Shatner, Dr. James Orbinski and James Turner. As a comic book fan I've taken pride in this nation being home to one of comicdom's most popular super heroes, Wolverine; birthplace to Joe Shuster, one-half of the team who created super heroes; and to Dave Sim's 300 issues of Cerebus, a landmark in independent publishing. Heck, in comics Canada has everyone from Kate Beaton to Guy Delisle.

Canada has been good to me. I think I've been good to Canada. Happy Canada Day, my friend.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Fiction that won me back

People who know me know that I'm extremely picky and stubborn like a mule. When I get a notion into my head I'm loathe to reverse my position. Growing up, I was a terrible problem for my family whenever they wanted to see a movie in the theater because I would veto most of what the cinemas were offering. And once I decided I didn't like something, I would remain steadfast in my resolve.

This being so, let's look at three times where I had set myself against a project - only to be won back.

I watched a fair bit of Mission: Impossible growing up, starting with the 1980s revival series, then seeing the original program when it ran in reruns on FX. It was often an uneven series (particularly in the later years) but there are many episodes which I can point to as great television. The series also had a great number of repeated tropes, moments which would appear in virtually every episode and so would be anticipated each time - and then surprised in those episodes which didn't follow the typical Mission: Impossible formula.

I did not like Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible. Oh, how much did I not like this film. As a Mission: Impossible fan, I simply couldn't stand seeing the program's hero - Jim Phelps - turned into a villain then thrown under the bus in order to promote Tom Cruise as the new hero. This film angered me, so much so that I couldn't appreciate any of the craft which went into its much-admired stunts.

Many years later I found myself on a flight from Canada to Sierra Leone and noticed Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol among the in-flight entertainment. After getting through the films I really wanted to see, I lowered my expectations in order to give Ghost Protocol a shot. I reasoned that while it wouldn't be the Mission: Impossible I enjoyed, as it was directed by a director I enjoyed (Brad Bird) maybe I'd get something out of it. I was won over by the time the opening credits rolled.

The bongo music - the fuse moving across the screen - the clips of upcoming moments - wow. Instantly, I gleaned that Brad Bird might have been a fan of the original series. I became immersed in that film and enjoyed that it was - like the original series - an ensemble piece (that is, less of a Tom Cruise vehicle). So many of the trademarks of the television program were present, from stealth gadgets to changing room numbers to trick people. I enjoyed this film so much I went to see Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation on its opening weekend! Ghost Protocol remains a film I would happily watch again.

I came somewhat late into Star Trek fandom, arriving just as Star Trek: Voyager launched. I went back to catch all that I had missed and soon found there were episodes I liked, other episodes not-so-much, characters I liked, characters I loathed. While Star Trek: Deep Space Nine became my favourite of the franchise I still watched Voyager to the end - gradually realizing it wasn't that great, often viewing it from a sense of inertia and seldom engaged with the stories, but it wasn't bad enough to switch channels.

Then came Enterprise. Although I had misgivings about the series' approach to continuity, I respected that the program wanted to break out of the usual tropes and find a new angle on the Trek formula in order to attract a wider audience. I gave the first season some rope and found it likeable enough. That changed with season 2, particularly with the notorious "A Night in Sickbay" episode, but also a series of other similarly lousy programs. I gave up partway into the season and decided I was done with Trek. I ignored what I heard about the show's changes in seasons 3 & 4.

One day, a friend eagerly insisted I watch the season 4 two-parter "A Mirror Darkly." I spent a great deal of time laughing at the over-the-top performances and the audacious number of references to classic Trek. This convinced me to go back and see the rest of season 4 to discover what the series' new showrunner (Manny Coto) had done to improve the series. I ultimately judged he had made the show a solid good program and felt better about how Trek's TV franchise wound up. Still, some fans insisted the show had actually become good in season 3. Eventually I would watch everything I had missed (including more of the lousy season 2 episodes) and concluded that it had actually become decent near the end of season 2 and even hit an all-time high during its 3rd season. Enterprise didn't deserve a better chance - simply being Star Trek gave it a better chance than most programs - but, like every Trek program, if you ignore the really bad episodes it's not such an awful series.

Finally, Star Wars. I've blogged before about how Star Wars was a very important franchise to me in my childhood but how I began to feel disinterested even before Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released. That feeling continued throughout the era of prequel films. I recognized the product as a legitimate Star Wars offering, yet had a sense of disassociation, not feeling any emotion about seeing the product. This finally changed when I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which offered some compelling new characters alongside a hefty dose of nostalgia.

Nostalgia is the common bond between these franchises. To win me back to Mission: Impossible, it took an homage to the original series opening; for Enterprise, it was bringing in the Mirror Universe; for Star Wars, it was familiar characters and situations. But I would say in each instance nostalgia was a means to an end, not a means unto itself. Beyond the nostalgia I sensed in the opening of Ghost Protocol, I enjoyed the risky stunts and character interplay. Enterprise dug deep into franchise lore for its 4th season, but it also worked hard to rehabilitate its own characters, particularly by calling out its lead character (Jonathan Archer) for his sins. Finally, The Force Awakens trod upon familiar soil, but it was the new character Finn who gave me hope for the franchise's future.

How about you? Is there a series or franchise which you came to dislike, then found yourself being won back?