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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Books I Read in 2015

With 127 books read this year, I managed to beat last year's tally by precisely one. That's not much improvement, but one of my goals was to read more works by women, and I'm happy to say I achieved that. I read 59 books by women this year, and 67 by men. That's not quite parity, but it's closer than I've ever come (at least since I started keeping track of what I read).

Without this goal in mind, I may never have been exposed to the delights of Lucy Maud Montgomery, and my continued exploration of the works of Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. LeGuin may have been delayed by years. I knocked two more of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books off the list this year and just cracked open The Deathly Hallows, but I doubt I'll finish it before midnight given the day's activites.

Reading women also bumped up the number of mainstream/literary novels I read this year, nearly doubling my non-genre reading over last year.

 Rediscovering Phil Dick was the year's biggest pleasure, though. It turns out there's good reason for his reputation, and I'm glad to have read his major works.

As usual, more than half the books I read this year were published in the very recent past, despite my efforts to catch up on important works from further back in time.

Here's the list...

January: 15
I Married a Dead Man (Cornell Woolrich, 1948)
The Killer Inside Me (Jim Thompson, 1952)
The Talented Mr. Ripley (Patricia Highsmith, 1955)
Pick-Up (Charles Willeford, 1955)
Down There (David Goodis, 1956)
The Real Cool Killers (Chester Himes, 1959)
Armageddon 2419 A.D. (Philip Francis Nowlan, 1928)
Star Trek The Fall: Revelation and Dust (David R. George III, 2013)
The Airlords of Han (Philip Francis Nowlan, 1929)
Amazing Amy, Tattle Tale (Gillian Flynn, 2015)
The Lottery; or, The Adventures of James Harris (Shirley Jackson, 1949)
Dreamsnake (Vonda McIntyre, 1978)
Black Man (Richard Morgan, 2007)
The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson, 1959)
Arslan (Mary Jane Engh, 1976)

February: 11
Star Trek the Fall: A Ceremony of Losses (David Mack, 2013)
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson, 1962)
Star Bridge (Jack Williamson and James E. Gunn, 1955)
Among Others (Jo Walton, 2011)
Star Trek The Fall: The Crimson Shadow (Una McCormack, 2013)
The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula K. LeGuin, 1971)
The Word for World is Forest (Ursula K. LeGuin, 1976)
Come Along With Me (Shirley Jackson, 1968)
Just an Ordinary Day (Shirley Jackson, 1997)
Work Done for Hire (Joe Haldeman, 2014)
Lock In (John Scalzi, 2014)

March: 11
Undercity (Catherine Asaro, 2014)
The Dispossessed (Ursula K. LeGuin, 1974)
Star Trek The Fall: The Poisoned Chalice (James Swallow, 2013)
You (Austin Grossman, 2013)
The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. LeGuin, 1969)
What We See When We Read (Peter Mendelsund, 2014)
The Ice Dragon (George R. R. Martin, 1980)
Alpha (Catherine Asaro, 2006)
Star Trek The Fall: Peaceable Kingdoms (Dayton Ward, 2014)
Influx (Daniel Suarez, 2014)
Alfred Hitchcock’s America (Murray Pomerance, 2013)

April: 12
Rocannon’s World (Ursula K. LeGuin, 1966)
Planet of Exile (Ursula K. LeGuin, 1966)
City of Illusions (Ursula K. LeGuin, 1967)
Mad Skills (Walter Greatshell, 2011)
The Telling (Ursula K. LeGuin, 2000)
The Legion of Space (Jack Williamson, 1947)
The Hemingway Hoax (Joe Haldeman, 1990)
The Scapegoat (C.J. Cherryh, 1985)
Blackout (Connie Willis, 2010)
Seasons (Joe Haldeman, 1985)
Star Trek Enterprise Rise of the Federation: Uncertain Logic (Christopher L. Bennett, 2015)
Cordon Sanitaire (Timothy Zahn, 1985)

May: 5
All Clear (Connie Willis, 2010)
The 10th Victim (Robert Sheckley, 1965)
Victim Prime (Robert Sheckley, 1987)
Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie, 2013)
Ancillary Sword (Ann Leckie, 2014)

June: 9
Parasite (Mira Grant, 2013)
The Affinities (Robert Charles Wilson, 2015)
Deadline (Mira Grant, 2011)
Blackout (Mira Grant, 2012)
Finders Keepers (Stephen King, 2015)
My Real Children (Jo Walton, 2014)
What Makes This Book So Great (Jo Walton, 2014)
Star Trek Voyager: Acts of Contrition (Kirsten Beyer, 2014)
Star Trek The Next Generation: The Light Fantastic (Jeffrey Lang, 2014)

July: 12
The Man in the High Castle (Philip K. Dick, 1962)
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (Philip K. Dick, 1965)
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Philip K. Dick, 1968)
Ubik (Philip K. Dick, 1969)
The Fold (Peter Clines, 2015)
Star Trek Section 31: Disavowed (David Mack, 2014)
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke, 2004)
V-S Day (Allen Steele, 2014)
Star Wars Sequel Screenplay (Leigh Brackett, 1978)
14 (Peter Clines, 2012)
The Long Mars (Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, 2014)
Spirit of ’77 (David Kizzia and Bob Richardson, 2015)

August: 13
Armada (Ernest Cline, 2015)
Martian Time-Slip (Philip K. Dick, 1964)
Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb (Philip K. Dick, 1965)
Now Wait for Last Year (Philip K. Dick, 1966)
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (Philip K. Dick, 1974)
A Scanner Darkly (Philip K. Dick, 1977)
A Maze of Death (Philip K. Dick, 1970)
VALIS (Philip K. Dick, 1981)
Star Trek Deep Space Nine: The Missing (Una McCormack, 2015)
The Divine Invasion (Philip K. Dick, 1981)
The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (Philip K. Dick, 1982)
Fractured: Tales of the Canadian Post-Apocalypse (Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Editor, 2014)
Farthing (Jo Walton, 2006)

September: 10
Ha’penny (Jo Walton, 2007)
Half a Crown (Jo Walton, 2008)
Star Trek The Next Generation: Takedown (John Jackson Miller, 2015)
The Unteleported Man (Philip K. Dick, 1966)
Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan (Robin Maxwell, 2012)
The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood, 2000)
The League of Regrettable Superheroes (Jon Morris, 2015)
The Complete Peanuts 1995 to 1996 (Charles M. Schulz with an introduction by Rifftrax and MST3K, 2015)
Peanuts Every Sunday 1952-1955 (Charles M. Schulz with a foreword by Jonathan Rosembaum, 2013)
Peanuts Every Sunday 1956-1960 (Charles M. Schulz with a foreword by Chuck Klosterman, 2014)

October: 7
The Autobiography of James T. Kirk (2015, David A. Goodman, Editor)
The Scarlet Pimpernel (Baroness Emmuska Orczy, 1905)
Transhuman (Ben Bova, 2014)
The End of All Things (John Scalzi, 2015)
The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made (Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell, 2013)
The Robber Bride (Margaret Atwood, 1993)
The Goblin Emperor (Katherine Addison, 2014)

November: 12
The Best of Connie Willis (Connie Willis, 2013)
The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins, 2015)
Six Months, Three Days (Charlie Jane Anders, 2011)
Ancillary Mercy (Ann Leckie, 2015)
Lois Lane: Fallout (Gwenda Bond, 2015)
Coming Home (Jack McDevitt, 2014)
Back to the Future: A Visual History (Michael Klastorin with Randal Atamaniuk, 2015)
The Penelopiad (Margaret Atwood, 2005)
Her Fearful Symmetry (Audrey Niffenegger, 2009)
The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi, 2009)
Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883)
Anne of Green Gables (Lucy Maud Montgomery, 1908)

December: 10
Anne of Avonlea (Lucy Maud Montgomery, 1909)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (J.K. Rowling, 2003)
The Library at Mount Char (Scott Hawkins, 2015)
The Complete Peanuts 1997 to 1998 (Charles M. Schulz with an introduction by Paul Feig, 2015)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (J.K. Rowling, 2005)
Strange Itineraries (Tim Powers, 2005)
Wilderness Tips (Margaret Atwood, 1991)
The Tent (Margaret Atwood, 2006)
Chronicles of Avonlea (Lucy Maud Montgomery, 1912)
Black Beauty (Anna Sewell, 1877)

Fiction: 120
Nonfiction: 7

Science Fiction: 63
Mainstream: 28
Star Trek: 12
Fantasy: 10

Horror: 3
Peanuts collections: 4

Top Authors
Philip K. Dick: 14

Ursula K. LeGuin: 8

Jo Walton: 6

Margaret Atwood: 5
Shirley Jackson: 5

Mira Grant: 3
Joe Haldeman: 3
Ann Leckie: 3
Lucy Maud Montgomery: 3
Charles M. Schulz: 3
Connie Willis: 3

Catherine Asaro: 2
Peter Clines: 2
David Mack: 2
Una McCormack: 2
Philip Francis Nowlan: 2
J.K. Rowling: 2
John Scalzi: 2
Robert Sheckley: 2
Jack Williamson: 2

Katherine Addison: 1
Charlie Jane Anders: 1
Randal Atamaniuk: 1
Paolo Bacigalupi: 1
Stephen Baxter: 1
Christopher L. Bennett: 1
Kirsten Beyer: 1
Tom Bissell: 1
Gwenda Bond: 1
Ben Bova: 1
Leigh Brackett: 1
C.J. Cherryh: 1
Susanna Clarke: 1
Ernest Cline: 1
Mary Jane Engh: 1
Gillian Flynn: 1
David R. George III: 1
David Goodis: 1
David A. Goodman: 1
Walter Greatshell: 1
Austin Grossman: 1
James E. Gunn: 1
Paula Hawkins: 1
Scott Hawkins: 1
Patricia Highsmith: 1
Chester Himes: 1
Stephen King: 1
David Kizzia: 1
Michael Klastorin: 1
Jeffrey Lang: 1
George R. R. Martin: 1
Robin Maxwell: 1
Jack McDevitt: 1
Vonda McIntyre: 1
Peter Mendelsund: 1
John Jackson Miller: 1
Silvia Moreno-Garcia: 1
Richard Morgan: 1
Jonn Morris: 1
Audrey Niffenegger: 1
Baroness Emmuska Orczy: 1
Murray Pomerance: 1
Tim Powers: 1
Terry Pratchett: 1
Bob Richardson: 1
Greg Sestero: 1
Anna Sewell: 1
Allen Steele: 1
Robert Louis Stevenson: 1
Daniel Suarez: 1
James Swallow: 1
Jim Thompson: 1
Dayton Ward: 1
Charles Willeford: 1
Robert Charles Wilson: 1
Cornell Woolrich: 1
Timothy Zahn: 1

Books by Women: 59
Books by Men: 67
Books by Decade
1870s: 1
1880s: 1
1900s: 3
1910s: 1
1920s: 2
1940s: 3
1950s: 7
1960s: 15
1970s: 9                                
1980s: 8
1990s: 4
2000s: 15     

2010s: 58

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Futility of DRM

Several weeks ago, I purchased Ex Machina on Blu-Ray. Tonight I decided to watch it, but my computer now refuses to play Blu-Rays thanks to some DRM hogwash and I can't even use the Google Play code provided because "you cannot redeem this code in your country."

You know, content owners, I paid for the  movie because I support the arts and good movies in particular, and I hear that Ex Machina is very good indeed. Why do you insist on throwing up roadblocks in front of paying customers, when it's been demonstrated again and again that all you're doing is encouraging piracy? 

Monday, December 28, 2015

Mr. Peanuts

My paternal grandmother left behind these intriguing Mr. Peanut salt and pepper shakers, presumably a collectible giveaway from some decade long past. One Mr. Peanut is missing a hat, making him useless as a spice dispenser, but he still cuts a dashing figure. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Today's Little Gift

While watching The Monster That Challenged the World this morning, I thought to myself how sad it was that the holidays fly by so quickly. "Tuesday already," I thought.

But then I wondered. Was it truly Tuesday? I looked at my phone. "Sunday, 27." That didn't seem right.

Sylvia was out visiting a friend. When she returned, I asked "Is today Sunday, Monday or Tuesday?"

"It's Sunday!" she said.

What a nice surprise. Now back to Romeo & Juliet (1968). 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Lego Advent Calendar Haiku 2015, Day 23

Skimming on the snow
Santa's new sleds bring the toys
Rudolph is enraged

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Monday, December 21, 2015

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Friday, December 18, 2015

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Lego Advent Calendar Haiku 2015, Day 15

Christmas train passing
Nothing says Christmas quite like
A turbolaser

Monday, December 14, 2015

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Lego Advent Calendar Haiku 2015, Day 12

A rack of blasters
Protects presents from Jawas
Ben and Beru shot first

Friday, December 11, 2015

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Lego Advent Calendar Haiku 2015, Day 10

A stormtrooper scowl
Has no force at Christmastime
Not while spruces smile

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Monday, December 07, 2015

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Lego Advent Calendar 2015, Day Five

The sandcrawler creeps
Across the hard ice runway
The biplane watches

Friday, December 04, 2015

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Lego Advent Calendar Haiku 2015, Day Three

Christmas tradition
Lemon cream pies for all, but
We don't serve droids here

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Lego Advent Calendar Haiku 2015, Day One

Sail barge glides on snow
Leaving toy cars far below
Remote controls dead

Monday, November 30, 2015

October 2015 Review Roundup

Among the books I read in October, two stood out as favourites: Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride and The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, by the film's co-star, Greg Sestero.

I really loved The Robber Bride, a story about three women and their dark nemesis. I dove in knowing nothing about the book and was quickly carried away by Atwood's remarkably deft wordsmithing and her ability to evoke empathy for her characters, even the ones who behave very badly, including the titular villainess. The Disaster Artist was a huge surprise, laugh-out-loud funny one moment and deeply sobering the next, with a poignant ending that left me with a huge smile on my face. If you've ever seen The Room, Tommy Wiseau's bewildering film of romance and betrayal, you really must read this book. The Disaster Artist doesn't explain Wiseau or the film - I don't know that anything sane could - but it's a really wonderful portrait of an unlikely friendship, as well as a sympathetic look at a desperately lonely man clearly out of step with the world that surrounds him.

I also enjoyed the Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel, one of the earliest novels of swashbuckling adventure that set the tone for later heroes such as Batman, the Phantom, the Lone Ranger and other masked men. Orczy's tale moves along at a brisk pace and doesn't seem dated despite being over a century old.

Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor is a well-crafted novel of court intrigue set in a fantasy milieu; I'm not sure why Addison felt the need to provide a fantastic setting, because it reads like a mainstream work. There's no magic here; the people are elves and goblins instead of humans, and that's as far as the fantasy element goes. Whatever her reasons for the setting, though, it works.

Ben Bova has written far better things than Transhuman, and I'm sorry to say that there's nothing really groundbreaking here that hasn't already been covered by someone else.

John Scalzi's The End of All Things is the latest chapter in his reliably entertaining Old Man's War universe, and while this novel is just more of the same, that's a good thing when you're reading Scalzi.

The Autobiography of James T. Kirk is well-written and a bit of a treat for dedicated fans, but even though the story is well-crafted I found it hard to appreciate for some reason...perhaps because it's almost better if Kirk's past is left to the imagination of the reader/viewer.

I watched 39 (!) films in October, more than ever before, but 26 of those were shorts, including the delightful The House is Innocent, a film about a couple who buy an infamous house that was the site of multiple murders. They decide to right the house's reputation with offbeat humour, decorating the home's interior, exterior and yard with eye-catching sculpture and signage. I was very sorry Sylvia wasn't there to see the movie with me, because the couple have a relationship much like the one we enjoy.

The bulk of the shorts I watched came from a delightful Blu-Ray called 3D Rarities. I had no idea that filmmakers were experimenting with 3D as early as the 1920s, nor that Canada's Norm McLaren had worked in the form. This disc alone made me glad we picked up a 3D television and Blu-Ray player; the shorts on the disc are inventive, fascinating, and many are superbly done, with very convincing depth.

In terms of full-length films, I finally got around to watching Terms of Endearment, the film that beat out The Right Stuff for Best Picture to my consternation back in 1983. Having seen both films now, I still think The Right Stuff is the better movie, but Terms of Endearment is charming enough, I suppose, if conventional. King Vidor's The Champ remains moving to this day, thanks in great part to Jackie Cooper's heartbreaking performance at the film's climax. In theatres I found The Martian a rare treat, a well-paced space survival film with, for once, a positive message about not just humanity's future, but about human nature itself.

I finished off the month with a handful of horror movies on Halloween, including Night of the Demon, Curse of the Demon (two versions  of the same film, both effective), White Zombie, Night of the Ghouls (an Ed Wood classic), Tales from the Crypt (70s anthology horror at its finest), Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and the 1932 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

My First 10 Films?

After so much time has passed it's difficult to tell the difference between real memories and reconstructed ones, but cataloging the movies I've seen via Letterboxd would seem to reveal the films I was first exposed to. I'm about 75 percent certain that I saw these movies close to their original release dates or during re-releases either at the movie theatre in the Leaf Rapids Town Centre or (in the case of The Other Side of the Mountain) at the drive-in in Flin Flon. Here's the list, starting with the earliest first, with the dates I believe I saw them in brackets:

The Towering Inferno (December 1974)
Escape to Witch Mountain (March 1975)
The Return of the Pink Panther (May 1975)
When Worlds Collide (June 1975)
The War of the Worlds (June 1975)
The Apple Dumpling Gang (July 1975)
The Other Side of the Mountain (July 1975)
The Four Musketeers (September 1975)
The Hindenburg (December 1975)
The Bad News Bears (April 1976)

It's possible that I saw The Apple Dumpling Gang a couple of years later on a Wonderful World of Disney broadcast; in any event, I remember discussing the film with my cousins William and Carol Anne while we were all living in Leaf Rapids, so I must have seen it between 1975 and 1979. I remember being bored at the drive-in during The Other Side of the Mountain, and bored and then horrified by The Hindenburg in Leaf Rapids. I also recall getting scared out of my wits by the When Worlds Collide/The War of the Worlds double bill at the theatre in Leaf Rapids. For 75 cents, by the way, I saw both movies and I got a soda and popcorn.

I have the vaguest memories of The Four Musketeers and the two Pink Panther films. I'm certain I saw at least one of the Panther films, and possibly both, in Leaf Rapids, and I have a feeling I saw The Four Musketeers there, but I can't claim to be absolutely sure it was one of the first ten.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Winter of My Discontent

Another snowfall, another flat. Thankfully I was giving Sean a ride home - he gave me a big hand changing the tire and captured this annoying moment for posterity. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Farewell, Weslyn

Former Alberta Liberal MLAs Bill Bonko and Weslyn Mather at a 2007 event in Calgary. 

I was fortunate enough to work with Weslyn Mather for two years during the latter half of her 2004-2008 term as an Alberta Liberal MLA. I was impressed by Weslyn's deeply sincere commitment to public service, particularly her advocacy for the welfare of children. She was also a powerful advocate for accessible child care for everyone, an issue Alberta struggles with to this day. I was very saddened when Weslyn lost her bid for re-election in 2008; she was a wonderful MLA and public servant, and the Alberta Legislature was a poorer place without her.

I'm even more saddened to learn that Weslyn passed away yesterday. She was a kind, compassionate human being, the sort of person you're grateful to have known, the sort of person you're glad answered the call to public service.

I hope Weslyn's family and friends will find some comfort in their memories of this remarkable woman. May she rest in peace knowing she did her part to help build a better Alberta. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Earl on Letterboxd

I just discovered Letterboxd, which offers a means for film lovers to track the movies they've watched and get recommendations from other users. While I'm cognizant of the many downsides of social media (not least of which is our eroding privacy), I weighed the pros and cons and decided to give it a try. If you're on Letterboxd, let me know; my profile can be found here. If nothing else, I've used it to collect all of my reviews in one place. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Flatly Denied

Last night I dreamed I was the executive assistant to Vic Mackie, who was the owner of a garage/oil well. He also happened to be a vigilante. One day, after bringing down a flying 18-wheeler by hurling a rubber tire through its windshield, killing the driver, Mackie asked me to rent a steamroller for him.

"How long do you want it for?" I asked nervously.

"I'll only need it for about five seconds," he answered.

It turns out that you have to rent steamrollers in increments of 3.5 hours, which I dutifully did. When the steamroller arrived at the garage, Mackie hopped into the cab and steamrolled two sobbing bad guys, gruesomely mashing them flat. They burst like blood-filled balloons.

I'm glad I don't have that job in real life. 

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Big Boom

Today I attended an introductory PowerPoint course at the University of Alberta. I picked up some pretty good tricks, while at the same time putting together a silly Star Trek presentation. If I knew how to turn it into a movie, I'd post the whole thing, but since I don't, here's the opening slide. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Always and Never Coming Home

Jack McDevitt's two future histories portray stable interstellar societies that envision humanity at peace with itself and the universe around it. The Alex Benedict stories take place over 9,000 years from now, and people are comfortable, either living lives of leisure of pursuing employment if they feel like it. FTL travel is routine, and AIs are both helpful and personable. Some people create holographic avatars of themselves just in case relatives want to check in on them after death, though everyone involved knows these avatars are nothing more than sophisticated simulations.

Against this backdrop, Alex Benedict and his pilot Chase Kolpath search for artifacts of humanity's past, which they sell to private collectors. Their adventures typically involve chasing down particularly juicy pieces of history.

In Coming Home, the latest Benedict novel, there's an artifact and a cruise liner trapped in warp space, awaiting rescue. But what's most interesting about this book is McDevitt's world-building. In greater detail than ever before, the author fills in the blanks of his future history, and in doing so reveals that his characters are woefully ignorant of most of it, for the sheer weight of years has erased much of our legacy.

The people of the future know of Armstrong and Aldrin and the first moon landing. But the site itself lasted only a thousand years before a Dark Age lasting centuries resulted in panicked historians bringing what they could back to Earth for safekeeping, only to have it lost in society's centuries-long collapse.

Here's one passage that hints at what's been lost:

Alex thinks the worst disaster in the history of the human race occurred when the internet shut down, apparently without warning, early in the Fourth Millennium. "The breadth of the loss," he said, as we went in through the museum's front doors, "is best illustrated by the fact that we don't even know what disappeared."
The vast majority of books, histories, classic novels, philosophical texts, were simply gone. Most of the world's poetry vanished. Glimpses of Shelley and Housman and Schneider survived only in ancient love letters or diaries. Their work doesn't exist anymore. Just like almost every novel written before the thirty-eighth century. We hear references to the humor of James Thurber, but we have nothing to demonstrate it. Unfortunately, there was no equivalent this time to the monasteries that salvaged so much during the first dark age. Within a few generations of the electronic collapse, a few people knew Pericles was important, but hardly anyone knew why. And Mark Twain was only a name. 
The Albertson Museum, apparently, had locked down its reputation when it recovered a copy of The Merry Wives of Windsor. That had given us a total of six Shakespearean plays.
They had a theater where you could watch one of the movies from Hollywood's early years. Hollywood was where they manufactured most of the films when the technology was just getting started. Only seven have survived from that era...If anyone's curious, they are High Noon, South Pacific, Beaches, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Casablanca, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Tarzan swung through jungles in a series of books that, in their time, are supposed to have outsold everything except the Bible. The search to identify him - it's assumed he is a male - is still on.
Superman and Batman got their start, we think, during the twenty-fourth century. Except for a brief period during the Dark Age, they've never gone away.
It's clear from context that there are whole cities and even nations that the future has forgotten, though Canada still exists in a sense; indeed, Winnipeg is Earth's capital, and it's described as a beautiful place. But most of the sports my friends follow are gone, except for soccer. In the future they think Dracula was a famous physician known for extracting blood. They know there's an asteroid in the solar system named Spock, but they have no idea what the word signifies.

(There's a clever reference to McDevitt's Priscilla Hutchins novels, his other major future history: at least one of those novels survives, and Chase Kolpath muses that she liked the main character. So in the Alex Benedict universe, the Priscilla Hutchins universe is fictional.)

As a lover of culture, I found the book pretty harrowing. What price Utopia? Apparently, most of our good works. And yet I can't deny that McDevitt's future seems all too plausible. Hang on to your paperbacks and photo prints.


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Good of the One

Normally I'm not much for autotune and dubstep, but Melodysheep's tribute to Spock and Leonard Nimoy is pretty well done. Live Long and Prosper!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Inspired by the Interstate

Last month I shared my character concept for Spirit of '77. At the time I thought I'd done a pretty good job of mixing and matching a bunch of disparate elements of 1970s pop culture into a fun homage suitable for tabletop roleplaying adventures.

Not long after I posted, however, my friend Jeff hinted that there were "connections" I'd somehow missed when composing my character's backstory. I searched my memory, but could find no connections other than those I'd drawn inspiration from, the most obvious sources.

But then, to my astonishment, Jeff posted a bombshell on his blog, JSVB, yesterday. I urge you to visit Jeff's site for the full details, but in brief, it appears as though I'd subconsciously lifted most of my character backstory from pulp author Steve Kaiser's action-adventure romp, Interstate 10. Even the cover art comes uncannily close to mirroring my protagonist and his prototype VW Beetle.

Naturally I'm stunned that some deep corner of my brain dredged up inspiration from a novel that I don't remember whatsoever, but I'm glad that Jeff's Uncle Thad sent along this obscure but revelatory gift. After Jeff has reread the book a couple of times, I hope he'll loan it to me so I can mine its pulpy contents for further inspiration - with all due respect, of course, to Kaiser.

This experience reminds me once again the fleeting and illusory nature of memory, and by extension, of existence itself; reliant upon our senses, our limited and subjective experience, it's difficult to know what is real and what unreal, a problem that preoccupied Philip K. Dick, who, as Jeff reveals, Kaiser met one afternoon. One wonders what they talked about. I like to think they debated how art reveals reality while at the same time obscuring it.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Peace After Earth

One day hence
After the sands shift their last
And all the flags flutter earthward
Casting their final shadows at the last sunset
The unquiet dead
Will rest at last.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The SPECTRE Spectacle

SPOILERS HO for SPECTRE, the latest James Bond film. 

The latest Bond film has a number of weaknesses that hamper its entertainment value:

  • Monica Bellucci and Christoph Waltz are underused
  • Bond escapes from SPECTRE twice, and does so with unbelieveable ease
  • Bond and his latest Bond girl fall in love far too quickly, even for a Bond film
  • The big Blofeld reveal doesn't work because everyone knew it was coming, and those who didn't know have no reason to care
  • Once again, lazy writers tie a villain's origin to that of the hero, undermining Bond's backstory with tired cliche

Were I the man in charge of SPECTRE (the film), I would have retained Bellucci's character as the primary female lead; I`d make her Mr. White's widow (and naturally make Mr. White the target of Bond's opening assassination in Mexico). I`d keep Judi Densch's mission from beyond the grave, but have her suggest that killing White and showing up as his funeral could lead Bond to Quantum, the evil organization of the second Craig film. But have her hint that Quantum's reach may have been even bigger than they inititally suspected.

I would also have re-titled the film and kept SPECTRE's return entirely out of the news. It wouldn't be possible to keep the final resolution of the SPECTRE rights issue a secret, but you could deflect a lot of interest with some boilerplate to the effect of "We're very pleased to have the rights back, but we're not in a rush to bring SPECTRE back to the films. We have to wait until we have the perfect story for their reappearance." You could hint that perhaps SPECTRE would return in the fifth or sixth Craig Bond film.

But of course, you'd actually introduce them in this film, which I would re-title Property of a Lady - a double entendre that speaks to Bond's attraction to the Bellucci character and her possession of a diamond broach containing a holograph of a black octopus - a strange work of art that hides world-changing secrets. Furthermore, I'd make Bellucci more of a femme fatale in the classic noir mode, but with a genuine desire to mitigate her husband's crimes. And Bond would be drawn to both her dark side and her attempts to reform.

Bond and Bellucci would wind up on the run from Quantum (and MI6; I would keep the Nine Eyes plot as Quantum's supposed evil scheme of the week). I'd keep the "Welcome James" scene of the real movie, but Bond's escape would be far more intense, and this is how they'd wind up on the run, trying to get back to London with the broach so that Q can unlock its secrets. They would eventually do so, and with the information in the broach M can put a stop to the Nine Eyes plot. Bond's mission now is to tie up the big loose end that is Quantum itself; the information in the broach points him to the desert base that would have been Quantium's evil intelligence hub. He goes in with a team of British commandos; they mop up Quantum foot soldiers while Bond himself hopes to capture the group's leadership, which would have been there to witness the Nine Eyes activation. Bond does, in fact, manage to shoot up a bunch of Quantum executives in the control room, but Christoph Waltz leads him on a merry chase through the base as it falls to pieces around them in the best Bond fashion. There's a stunt setpiece in which Waltz' character makes it across a collapsing catwalk to an escape pod; the catwalk collapses just before Bond can follow. Waltz taunts Bond, which gives Bond time to take a photo of Waltz, much to his consternation. He snarls: "You think you've won? Quantum is nothing, James. Nothing." He escapes, and Bond returns to London.

He shows M the photo, and M files it away for future use; one day they'll identify him.

In a romantic coda, Bellucci and Bond are relaxing together, perhaps on a yacht, perhaps at some sunny resort. By happenstance, Belluci's character sees the photo of Waltz' character and responds with horror: "James - do you know who that is? It's -"

And then she's shot in the back by an assassin hidden in shadows. Bond holds her as she gasps out her last breath: "B-blofeld. Ernst...Stavro...Blofeld."

Roll credits, and end with "JAMES BOND WILL RETURN IN SPECTRE."

In other words, Spectre's central premise would have been far more effective had the film's producers behaved a little more like SPECTRE itself. Longtime Bond fans would have been thrilled by the reveal, and more casual audiences would enjoy a more effective thriller, or at least I like to think so.

Thursday, November 12, 2015


To be clear, I'm not actually stressed; the title is inspired by the stress toy I'm beating on. I figure this thing will provide me with a good workout option at the office; I'll beat on it for 15 minutes each lunch hour. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Muir Woods Tree

During the closing days of World War II, the United Nations charter was signed in San Francisco. President Roosevelt didn't live long enough to see the charter signed, so the delegates travelled north, to Muir Woods, for a ceremony honouring the man. Muir Woods is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been; it makes me wish I were a better photographer. I think I've improved since 1998, though, and I think I could do a better job today. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Into the Wastelands

The long sleep ends now
Exit the vault, gun in hand
Into the wastelands

Monday, November 09, 2015

Good Grief, Earl J. Woods

Yes, I was shamelessly manipulated into promoting The Peanuts Movie by their "make yourself into a Peanuts character" gimmick. I chose the alarmed mouth because, well, I'm often alarmed, and doubly so here because I'm positioned next to Snoopy, which will surely set off my avatar's allergies. 

If I had been a Peanuts character during the strip's original run, I probably would have been a one-note joke like Pig Pen, my allergies used as a foil for Snoopy gags.  

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Spectre of the Past

It doesn't have the punch of Casino Royale or the poignancy of Skyfall, but Spectre does return a much-missed nemesis to the Bond films and in doing so ties the four Daniel Craig outings into one thematically sound package. Craig's Bond has always been the most reluctant and battle-torn Bond of the films; more than any other actor who has worn the tux, Craig imbues his performance with pain and a deliberate lack of affect; this is a man who, as he admits here, doesn't think much about what else he could have done with his life; he feels as though there were never any other choices for him.

Character agency is very much in question here; the primary antagonist and his secret evil conspiracy give no true rhyme or reason for what they do; they are evil because they have always been evil and must always remain evil, for that is the role history, Ian Fleming and Kevin McClory have cast for them. Even the name says it all: they are Spectre, the phantom that lurks in the shadows and strikes out to undermine civilization at the worst possible moments. Christoph Waltz' villain gives only the vaguest justification for their actions: "Sometimes it takes something terrible to lead to something wonderful." Usually would be world dominators at least attempt to justify their actions with some promise of order and stability; not here.

The world itself lurches forward, too, driven by fear that leading to the ultimate surveillance state, one which James Bond and the gang at MI6 must stop...but we in the audience know that even if the heroes succeed on screen, the surveillance state is here; the battle has already been fought and lost.

It's hard to classify Spectre as good or bad; it is merely as inevitable as the closing credits promise that "JAMES BOND WILL RETURN." It's entertaining, beautifully shot, well acted (especially by the masterful Waltz), provides the requisite comic relief and breathtaking stunts. To its credit, it even attempts to address a topical and crucial issue.

And yet it still feels as though we, the audience, are just as trapped as Craig feels in the role of Bond, and as Bond feels as an agent of Her Majesty's Secret Service. Watching Spectre is fun, but when it's over you can almost feel oily tentacles slithering around your limbs, pulling you to a place from which there may be no return. 

Friday, November 06, 2015

The Chilling Joke

What do you call it when someone insults your refrigerator?


Thursday, November 05, 2015

Criminal Drive-Through Humour

Yesterday Sylvia wanted tacos, so I stopped at Taco Time on the way home after work. The restaurant was surrounded by police cars with lights flashing, and I made note of it at the pickup window:

"I see you have a lot of police here," I said.

"Yes," the teller said, "I don't know what's going on!"

"I hope it wasn't a..." And here I made the universal finger guns gesture, "...Taco Crime."

She laughed. 

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

The Dream Front War

I awoke this morning aching all over - aches and pains I can still feel as I write. I'm in pain because last night I was caught in the shockwave of two explosions and had to swim my way out of a vehicle sinking into the Ottawa River.

The dream began innocently enough. It was late spring, and Sean and I were taking a quick stroll through the woods, crossing the border from the log cabin we were visiting into Alaska, the U.S. state that occupies just the northern coastline of the Alaskan peninsula; the rest of the peninsula, of course, belongs to the Canadian province of Yukon.

As Sean and I meandered along a thickly-wooded path, we came across the smoking ruin of a Canadian fighter jet. Before we could even really process the sight, another jet streaked above us, dropping bombs just a few metres away, destroying about a dozen rail cars. Sean and I were blasted back by the shockwave, but we were spared serious injury thanks to landing in deep snow.

Clearly, we were at war. We attempted to cross the border back into Canada, but we were stopped by American soldiers, who packed us into an Army truck and deported us to Montreal. The trip took two weeks.

The next thing I remember is being in a luxurious apartment in an Ottawa high-rise. Sean and I were discussing possible plots for the next DC Comics film. We agreed there should be a scene in which Superman and Captain Marvel are on Wonder Woman's Paradise Island, which has been enchanted so that Superman is powerless there. Captain Marvel solves this predicament by throwing Superman away from the island like a discus.

While we were having this discussion, I glimpsed a flash outside the window. Peeling the blinds back, I saw a cruise missle flying along the course of the Ottawa River, quickly joined by another in close pursuit. The first missle dove underwater and struck a Canadian submarine, but the sub suffered no damage. Unfortunately, the second missle slammed into a glass-walled restaurant, destroying an entire wall and sending dozens of patrons into the river.

Attempting rescue, Sean and I drove my car down the stairs and across the river, but a secondary explosion ruptured the car's integrity and we started to sink. We had to swim free, and suddenly I was at Andrew Fisher's wedding. Niki Atwal spotted me and called me over to his table, but then Dad showed up and said it was time to go; Mom, Sean and Sylvia were waiting in the greenhouse. As we were leaving I wound up stepping on a box with a cat inside it, tipping it over, much to the consternation of the cat; Dad righted the box. We joined Mom, Sean and Sylvia in the greenhouse lobby, and a bunny hopped around us, leading us to the exit, where it jumped up to pull the door open for us. The greenhouse owner was amazed, saying the bunny had never done that before.

Belatedly, I pulled out my phone to post a Facebook update about being apprehended by the Americans. It caused quite a stir until I woke up and realized that I was dreaming and sent out a correction to that effect. And then I actually woke up, checked my phone and realized that I'd sent out neither dream-related update.

My muscles still ache, though.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Earl's Halloween Horrorthon

I booked a "me weekend" for myself this Halloween and spent it screening a slate of randomly-chosen horror films from my library. Utterly neglecting my poor wife, I pretty much did nothing but watch old movies all day and night Saturday and Sunday. Here's the tally:

Night of the Demon (1957)
Curse of the Demon (1957)
White Zombie (1932)
Night of the Ghouls (1958)
Tales from the Crypt (1972)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)
The Walking Dead (1936)
Frankenstein 1970 (1958)

I also listened to the audio commentaries on Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the 1932 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Frankenstein 1970.

Night of the Demon (released in the USA in a cut-down version as Curse of the Demon), White Zombie and the 1932 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were my runaway favourites, each very atmospheric and chilling in its own way. Night of the Demon in particular offers genuine creepy thrills, with its cheaply-made yet still somehow monstrous fire demon; where the special effects falter, the screenplay, performances and cinematography pick up the slack ably.

Night of the Ghouls is objectively the worst of the bunch; it is, of course, an Ed Wood film, part of the loose Plan 9 From Outer Space - Bride of the Monster - Night of the Ghouls trilogy. Indeed, I didn't even realize these films were connected until one character, a police officer, made reference to the other films; I checked, and sure enough the character is a consistent recurring presence. I'm delighted that Ed Wood was building his own epic chronology of SF/mad science films!

The Walking Dead is a great Boris Karloff film. He's a monster again, but this time he's a good monster, an avenging angel brought back to life to wreak havoc on the criminals who framed him and sent him to the electric chair. It's half Warner Brothers gangster film, half Universal horror movie, a bizarre combination of genres that nonetheless works.

Another Karloff picture, Frankenstein 1970, doesn't work as well, with the exception of a really wonderful "gotcha" opening sequence. Had the rest of the film lived up to the first five minutes, this would have been a classic; as is, it's a pleasant if hokey time-waster. 

Monday, November 02, 2015

Stream Trek

Today CBS announced that Star Trek will return to television in January 2017. You would think that I'd be thrilled, and I was - until I discovered the distribution model. The first episode of the new series will be broadcast on CBS, but all further episodes will be available only via CBS' proprietary streaming service.

I understand why CBS is doing this - they're trying to compete with Netflix, just like everyone else, and they think making Star Trek exclusive to CBS All Access will get them millions of new subscribers. Personally I think the move will spark a pretty huge fan backlash, but we'll see.

Lovers of television as an art form now have to wonder if the looming death of broadcast cable will really be the boon some of us imagined. Already there are two shows I'd be interested in that will require me to sign up for two different streaming services: Star Trek on CBS All Access and The Man in the High Castle on Amazon Prime. How long will it be before people are subscribing to five or six different services in order to see all the shows they like? It'll be like cable television all over again - pay for two hundred channels and watch half a dozen shows among them.

(Because I'm Canadian, it's a little more complicated; according to today's news, the CBS All Access deal is available only to people in the USA; international distribution is still being worked out. So Canadians might see the new show on Global or CTV or maybe even CBC.)

I'd be less disturbed if the new Star Trek were premiering on Netflix, mainly because their model is a little more consumer-friendly; the content isn't tied to any one particular network or studio.

In the end, of course, I'll just buy the Blu-Ray sets, assuming CBS releases the new show to physical media, which is no longer, sadly, a given.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Ball of Fire

I set the iPhone to capture light trails and this is what I wound up with. Sort of interesting, especially when you start to notice the bizarre composition. What was I thinking?