Friday, September 24, 2010

Happy Birthday, Jim

Jim Henson would have been 76 today. His birthday should be celebrated every year by the eating of a rubber tire to the music of the Flight of the Bumblebee.

Someday, if I am very, very good, I will be immortalized in foam by having a muppet made in my likeness.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


There's a sign in the kingdom advertising a spa/salon. It says (among other things) that "microderm abrasion gets rid of sunspots."

I wonder if the astrophysical community knows about this?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

It May Not Be As Much A Wasteland As I Had Thought

Current Reading: The Tales of Ibis, by Hiroshi Yamamoto

Inspirational Quote: "Oh, well, this would be one of those circumstances that people unfamiliar with the law of large numbers would call a coincidence." -- Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) The Big Bang Theory Pilot

I have a cold. It's a great, solid, hairy beast of a thing that's packed my sinuses with wet cement and crapped phlegm down my throat until I can now express myself in twenty-one varieties of cough. Do I have your sympathy? Don't waste it. I've got a cold and I'm a wimp. Go feel sorry for someone with real problems.

Anyway, thoughts are having the devil of a time surfacing through layers of exhaustion and mucus so I've been spending rather more time than necessary dazed and staring at the television. And I've discovered two things:

1) The Big Bang Theory. I caught 10 minutes of it one evening between other activities and laughed so hard I fell off the sofa. I'm a geek with a university degree in physics, and I don't want to talk about how much of myself and my old friends I see in this show. Penelope has brought home the first 2 disks of the first season, so there's a good 6 hours I'm going to lose...

2) Avatar: the Last Airbender. It's a kid's cartoon. I'm a forty-plus adult. I get the feeling there's a point to be made there, but I have no idea what it could be. The boys and I used to watch this when it was playing on one of the Canadian kids networks, but somewhere in the second season, episodes got skipped and we never made it to the end. The recent Shyamalan film reminded me that it was pretty good.

Good doesn't cover it. This is amazing. A 35+ hour feat of serialized storytelling set in a fantasy world where eastern martial arts allow the manipulation of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. 11-year-old Aang is the reincarnation of the Avatar, a magician responsible for maintaining peace and balance. When he awakens after 100 years in an iceberg, he finds the Fire Nation has started a war that has nearly destroyed the world. To set things right, he has to learn to master the four elements and defeat the Fire Lord. Standing in his way is Prince Zuko, the conflicted son of the Fire Lord who's become obsessed with capturing the Avatar.

It's got lots of action, but there's a tremendous amount of humor too, along with a bit of romance, and a touch of tragedy. Forget the live-action version, this is far superior.

And now I'm going to go back to working my way through boxes of tissue...

BTW: phlegm is one of my favorite words. Where else, in English, do you get the "ph" form of "f" and a silent "g" all in a compact 6 letters?

Friday, September 17, 2010

What's Your Excuse?

I've never found writing easy. Honestly, there are times when I'll seize just about any excuse to avoid doing it.

I have a full-time job I don't enjoy. I have three children, two of whom are teenagers who have made some dark choices lately. Most of the time, I'm tired. A fair bit of the time, I'm so wound up by the actions of my children that all I can do is worry and hold in the panic and try to give my wife something to hold onto when she can't take any more.

When I'm looking for them, excuses to avoid writing are readily available.

But I have this thing I want. It's not for my kids or for my wife. It's a selfish thing just for me.

All the excuses are just a way of separating myself from it, of putting it off maybe until I'm lying on my deathbed and thinking, "I thought I'd have more time." I've been using my excuses lately (the new one is that I have a terrible cold that's making it difficult to think in complete words, let alone complete sentences), even though I've been feeling guilty about it.

For those of you who are like me in that respect, please go and read John Scalzi's take on things. I don't know what size boot he wears, but it's left an impression on my backside that seems entirely justified.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


We have hurricanes, but no himmicanes even though we all know that guys make a bigger mess than girls.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Faith and Fiction

Current Reading: The Stories of Ibis, by Hiroshi Yamamoto

Inspirational Quote: "When you have come to the edge / Of all light that you know / And are about to drop off into the darkness / Of the unknown, / Faith is knowing / One of two things will happen: / There will be something solid to stand on or / You will be taught to fly" -- Patrick Overton

I was born and raised an atheist. As I've grown older, though, and been exposed to science, philosophy and the hammer/anvil relationship that is life, I've found belief in nothing to be quite difficult to maintain. I don't think you can go too far in modern science (which consists essentially of asking, "Why?" with the persistence of a 2-year-old) before you run straight into "Because that's the way it is." Substitute, "Because it's God's will," or, "It's random," or "It's predestined, fate," if you like. It all boils down to the same thing. Quantum mechanics is math wrapped around "I don't know," and you can bet Schroedinger's cat was praying the lid would stay shut.

In spite of my skepticism about skepticism, I don't consider myself a Christian, Muslim, Hare-Krishna, Scientologist or anything else, really. If anything, I'm a Zen Buddhist by way of Groucho Marx (who was Jewish, by the way).

You may agree. You may not. Whatever. This isn't about me or what I believe.

This is about faith, and people of faith, and speculative fiction. I don't mean faith in oneself, or faith in science, but spiritual faith: the belief in a higher power. Faith has shaped our history and our present (not always for good). Conflicting ideologies have shaped our maps. But it's surprising, when you look at speculative fiction, how little an impact faith has on our imaginings of other worlds.

Just looking back over the books I've read (see the list to the left), only a handful touch on the impact or importance of faith. In Coyote Horizon, a fanatical bishop does a terrible thing because he cannot abide a challenge to his faith. In Mainspring, it is Hethor's faith that compels him onto his quest. American Gods, paradoxically, is about gods, but not about faith, and Shadow remains skeptical even while his life becomes bound up with the Gods of the title. Very few speculative fiction novels contain people of faith, or are about people of faith.

When people of spiritual faith appear in speculative fiction, they often get characterized as misguided zealots (see Coyote Horizon). Science fiction is full of religious people who oppose just about everything, especially the march of progress (I love Sagan's treatment of this in Contact). In fantasy, religion often gets demoted to cult status and most of those cults are evil organizations worshiping things with tentacles. They exist so that Conan can pillage them. Occasionally, the good cults are showcased for their ability to heal (which seems to be the distinguishing mark of "good" religions). They exist so that the protagonist doesn't have to deal with their injuries. Messiahs are, strangely, a favorite topic for speculative fiction. Stranger in a Strange Land and Dune are two monumental works about messiahs. They always come to a bad end, though.

I have yet to see a speculative fiction story about a good Catholic whose faith helps sustain her through his trials, or a Muslim whose peaceful practice of his faith is key to his ability to withstand the tragedies that befall him. Instead, false Gods appear all the time while true ones only pop up occasionally. There's very little speculation about God in speculative fiction. We don't ponder his/her/its existence except obliquely. We don't wonder about his species or gender, whether he's one or three or three hundred. And yet these questions are central to a great deal of our society.

When religion appears in speculative fiction, there is a predominance of monolithic cultures: all members of a species belong to the same religion. Looking at humanity, that seems ridiculously unlikely. Even within Christianity, which dominates here in Canada, we have Catholic and Protestant, United, Jehovah's Witness, Mennonite... more variants than I can count, each one claiming to worship the one true God in the only right way.

Once in a while, I come across a thoughtful treatment of religion and faith. Speaker for the Dead included a Catholic priest who took very seriously the spiritual well-being of the human settlers on a distant planet... and of the aliens who shared that planet with them. Babylon 5 lampshaded the monolithic spirituality of its aliens in one episode where, to showcase Earth's dominant religion, the commander filled a hangar bay with a line of spiritual leaders that stretched out of sight.

I think faith is an important aspect of character. I know people whose faith has led them to be more tranquil, more tolerant and wiser. I also know people whose faith has appeared to justify their prejudices and allowed them to be abusive without shame. I find it curious that faith, which plays so big a part in our world, plays such a small part in the worlds we imagine.

Naturally, I'm interested in your thoughts on the matter. Particularly any counterexamples: speculative work where faith is an important and positive aspect of character.

Book Report: Fool Moon, by Jim Butcher

Like the first Dresden Files book, this one is a textbook in structure done right. It's an incredibly fast read, and difficult to put down because almost every scene and chapter ends on a cliffhanger.

In this, Harry Dresden is brought in on a grisly murder where the victim looks like he's been savaged by a wild animal. It's a werewolf, of course, but not only does he have to deal with more than one, they're on different sides in a multi-party conflict. There are also different kinds of werewolves, from the berserker Streetwolves where the transformation is entirely mental to the loup-garou, an almost invulnerable shape changer whose savagery can't be controlled.

This is a good read, a potboiler that owes a great deal to Philip Marlowe. If it has a fault, and I don't think of this as such, it lacks the depth of some of the other books I've been reading. I think that's a trade-off, something sacrificed to ensure a breakneck pace. It's an exciting book, but it's not a place to look for a thoughtful exploration of what it means to be human.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Report: Coyote Horizon, by Allen Steele

The thing I love about the Coyote books is the combination of character driven stories and the hard science fiction setting. The books also have a political and societal awareness that puts me in mind of Dune. This book, part one of a two part Coyote story treads some of the same ground as Dune, but it is very much its own story. I think this one strays a little further from the hard science by introducing artificially introduced telepathy. However, it also explores the religious/spiritual/philosophical impact of contact with an alien race in a way that I've never quite seen before.

This is not merely some pedantic treatise, though. There's a good story here about a murderer who finally finds redemption through an alien philosophy, who becomes a teacher, a messiah and a martyr. It's also about a lone-wolf game hunter who finally connects with someone, and an ex-politician who can't bring himself to put the needs of his new world behind his own needs even though he's long retired.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this.