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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Slow River, Quick Ending

Slow River, Nicola Griffith's Nebula-winning second novel, is about a young woman of privilege who's held for ransom but abandoned by her wealthy family. Left to her own devices, she mounts her own escape, enters a relationship with another young woman of agency, and winds up working in waste treatment. I enjoyed this novel - Lore, the protagonist, is sympathetic and likeable, even admirable, and Griffith's prose is clean, efficient, and engaging. But I felt a little abandoned by the novel's abrupt ending; it feels like there's still a lot of story left to tell, and some plot threads are left dangling.

Maybe the unresolved nature of the novel stems from Griffith's own life path; she discovered as a teen that she was gay, and seems to have spent some time searching for her place in the world. Maybe leaving Lore in a similarly untethered position was meant to mirror the author's own experience. But that's just speculation; I could have missed the point entirely.

Slow River is still well worth reading, and I'm glad I spent the time in Lore's world. 

Sunday, July 29, 2018


Wouldn't it be cool if we evolved the ability to open our pores wide enough to release our hair? Shaving would be obsolete. Just flex and your beard falls out.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Sign Me Up for Short Treks

Now this is a cool idea: sometime later this year, CBS will release four "Short Treks," 10-15 minute episodes of Star Trek: Discovery, each focusing on a single character. For example, Rainn Wilson will direct and star as Harry Mudd in a Mudd-centric short, and Pulitzer prize-winner Michael Chabon has written a Short Trek about a new character who finds himself alone on a deserted spaceship. The two other episodes will centre on Saru and Tilly, who happen to be two of my favourite characters on the show.

I love Chabon's work, and I'm thrilled that a writer of his clout is adding his distinctive voice to Star Trek. I'm also really looking forward to seeing Rainn Wilson's interpretation of Harry Mudd again. More importantly, it's important to refresh the format of a long-running series from time to time; kudos to the showrunners for taking some chances. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

Poor Red

I'm working my way through the four novels that comprise James Blish's Cities in Flight cycle. I'm reading them in order of internal chronology, which doesn't match the original publishing order, which is perhaps why a minor plot point in the third book really throws the second book into a new and puzzling light.

The second book, A Life for the Stars, is the story of a young man, Chris deFord, who winds up getting press-ganged into joining the crew of the spacebound city of Scranton. It's a bildungsroman, revolving entirely around Chris' journey to adulthood. While disadvantaged in the beginning, Chris proves himself resourceful and valuable, and eventually winds up becoming city manager of New York, the most storied of the spacefaring cities.

But in the third book, Earthman, Come Home, we learn in one throwaway line that Chris wound up being executed by the city fathers for some kind of scandal. This seems completely out of character for the character we know from A Life for the Stars, but on the other hand, Chris, like many others on New York, is immortal, and this story is set hundreds of years later; so perhaps he simply changed.

It's important to note that A Life for the Stars was published several years after Earthman, Come Home, so it's possible (barring rewrites; there are differences between editions of these novels), that Chris first appearance is actually the offhand mention in the third book, and Blish then, for whatever reason, wrote a backstory for Chris.

Either way, it's a bit jarring to have the character killed off so casually. The books are still fun, but I find it an odd choice for Blish. 

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Poem for Half an Empire

The Byzantines were Romans, too
Roman Legions, tried and true
They didn't ask what happened to
Them when they met their Waterloo
The Rubicon they crossed through time
Was not their folly or their crime
When their Empire broke in twain
There were no songs of sad refrain;
Except perhaps they were frustrated
To be confused with "complicated."

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Sylvia's Made-to-Order Camping

Tonight Sylvia described a pretty brilliant idea: made-to-order camping for people like us who love the idea of camping, but hate the work that's associated with the activity.

Sylvia describes a system something like AirBnB, but for campgrounds. You'd sort through a list of campgrounds, choose where you want to go, then find your ideal, ready-made campsite. You could choose from a variety of trailers or tents, which would all be stocked with meals, bedding, equipment to start fires in the already-filled-with-chopped-wood fire pits, binoculars, fishing gear, everything you need for marshmallow and weiner roasts, etc. At the end of your stay, you just leave; the proprietors pack up your mess.

"Some people might argue that setting up and taking down the tent, washing the dishes, rolling up the sleeping bags and all that other stuff is part of the fun," I said.

"That is not the fun part!" she replied.

I can't argue. I always thought the best part of camping was looking up at the unspoiled stars and enjoying the crackle of the campfire. I can do without all the setup and takedown.

On the other hand, I feel a bit guilty even sharing Sylvia's brilliant idea--if implemented, it would surely leave swaths of people even less self-reliant than we should be. On the gripping hand, there are certainly some people--again, myself included--who probably aren't observant or diligent enough to camp safely. So this might very well be a boon to folks who should get outdoors more, but lack the confidence or skills to do so! 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Something I'll Say to Sylvia Tomorrow

"Is that...purple on your cheeks?"

" Oh no, I put too much on. It's to define my face." 

"I've already defined your gorgeous."


Monday, July 23, 2018

Lilies of the Field

Last night I screened Lilies of the Field, a 1963 Best Picture nominee, featuring the performance that earned Sidney Poitier the Best Actor Oscar for that year. While I enjoyed Poitier's performance, Jerry Goldsmith's music, the lean direction, handsome black and white cinematography, and the simple but affecting story, the film nonetheless left me unsettled and questioning.

In the film, Homer Smith (Poitier), stops at a ramshackle nunnery to borrow some water for his car. Mother Maria (Lilia Sakala, nominated for Best Supporting Actress) believes God has sent Homer to help the sisters build a chapel. Homer demurs, as he's happier to live as a man of the road, taking odd handyman jobs to support his easygoing, itinerant lifestyle. But the nun's ineptitude compels Homer to stay and help, and over the course of the film he reveals himself as not only an able handyman, but a leader, marshalling the volunteers who show up to help into a formidable workforce.

The chief source of drama in the film is Homer's easygoing attitude and desire to leave set against Mother Maria's devotion to a relatively ascetic lifestyle and her unspoken fondness for Homer. She even comes up with a number of excuses and odd jobs in an attempt to extend Homer's stay, but in the end, his task complete, Homer leaves the chapel and the nuns behind, proud of a job well done but true to his own needs.

Lilies of the Field is a simple film, but it's funny and warm and important because it features a well-rounded black character in a time when such characters were even rarer in mainstream film than they are today.

What hit me hardest, however, was the way that Poitier's performance clearly showed the deep but understated pride Smith takes in his work and his finished creation. And a fine chapel it is, once the work is complete. While I recognize that screening films always leaves the viewer vulnerable to emotional manipulation, I couldn't help but question the value of my own work when presented with a vision of something concrete (almost literally) and lasting. The fruits of Homer's labour are obvious and long-lasting. Even though I personally am not religious, I can see the value in a place of meditation and meeting for the community, and I envy Smith and others like him who build things that exist in the real world, with tangible benefits.

My labour, on the other hand, hasn't been physical since my early 20s. Of course I agree that communicating is important, and that the right message can have wide-ranging benefits, but I'm still not sure that anything I've written has had anything more than a brief, infinitesimal impact on the wider world. Aside from a few ghostwritten gardening books, I don't have anything I can hold up and say, "This is what I contributed to the world."

Again, I don't wish to downplay my own contributions to the world, most of which, I hope, are unrelated to whatever jobs I've held over the years. But sometimes I feel like I've missed something important by choosing the career I have. 

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Suffering of SimEarl

A few days ago, I pointed readers to a story on Jeff Shyluk's Visual Blog that showed how Jeff had made custom skins for The Sims back in the early 2000s. And now, thanks to Allan Sampson, I'm sharing a glimpse of how Jeff's very abstract-looking art looked when overlaid onto the Sims in-game models. Allan shared four screenshots of SimEarl in various stages of content (reading a newspaper, upper left) or distress (lacking nice furniture, playing chess in lonely solitude, and passing out in the street). I'm very grateful to Jeff for creating the Sims skins in the first place, and to Allan for capturing these screenshots. 

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Segregation on Krypton

A few days ago, Jeff Shyluk and I were poring over maps of Krypton as part of a project we've been discussing. I came across this old map of Krypton, and we exchanged some wry, sad commentary about "Vathlo Island--Home of Highly Developed Black Race."

I believe the creators of this map were trying to be inclusive, but instead the text comes off as both condescending and segregationist. But more importantly, the map caused me to look back at my own reading of the various Superman comics over the last five decades. Here's what I wrote to Jeff, in part:

"It makes you wonder what happened to the Kryptonian East Asians, Indigenous peoples, South Asians, etc. You know, over the years I have read nearly every issue of Superman, Action Comics, Justice League of America, World's Finest, Superman Family, Supergirl, Super-Team Family, DC Comics Presents, The Legion of Super-Heroes, Adventure Comics, Super-Sons, Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen, Superwoman, Superman Confidential, and the various one-shots, miniseries, and novels that make up the Superman canon. And in all those hundreds of comics and stories, I can think of only one non-white Kryptonian, Val-Zod, and he didn't show up until 2011, plus he's from a parallel Krypton, no less (from the universe of Earth-2, which I guess means he's from Krypton-2, though not the same Krypton-2 that birthed the original Golden Age Superman...never mind, comic book continuity is utterly ridiculous).

It's possible that there may have been non-white Kryptonians depicted in background scenes during flashbacks to Krypton pre-cataclysm, or maybe we might have seen a black or Asian Kryptonian in the bottle city of Kandor. But wow, until this email I had honestly never even considered the crazy fact that Krypton, aside from that one map reference and the very recent Val-Zod introduction, has been portrayed as an entirely white culture. WOW. That is bananas."

Naturally I don't remember every single panel of the literally thousands of comic books I've read that feature Superman; it's quite possible that some stories do indeed feature non-white Kryptonians. But aside from the above map reference and latecomer Val-Zod, I can't think of any Kryptonians of colour other than white. I'd love for other Superman and comic art fans to tell me differently...

Edited to add: Thanks to Mike Totman for digging up this 2009 story that reveals there have indeed been some non-white Kryptonians featured in the recent past. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Wrestling Warriors

It's a shoe commercial! It's a music video! But heck if it isn't catchy, with a couple of cool special effects that would look great in a superhero film. I don't know who A-Trak is, but I'm quite fond of the work of Foster the People and Kimbra.

I really need to take a music appreciate course or two so that I can better articulate why certain songs move me. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

These Precious Illusions Resonate

Not long before I met Sylvia, I was captivated by this song and its music video. Not only do I love the music itself--and I'm afraid I still lack the vocabulary to describe why--the lyrics, at the time, really gave me a window into how some women, in some situations, approach relationships and romance. I mean, I was and am still pretty clueless about this sort of thing, even after over a decade of marriage, but if nothing else, Alanis Morissette made me think about a woman's perspective in a different way. Too bad I hadn't learned that lesson ten or twelve years earlier - I might have saved myself some embarrassment. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

New Minions, New Paladins

Or maybe this is just a string of words that sound interesting together...

Cantankerous Melancholy
Jupiter Speedbump
Castaway Bypass
Handlebar Eggplant
Gruesome Satisfaction
Perturbed Palindrome
Halfway Meandering
Naughty Juicer
Vicious Poltroon
Habitat Frequency
Champion Underbite
Adidas Furthermore
Precious Soundbite
Addled Greenery
Forthright Menace
Pancake Betrayal
Wholesome Intruder
Profound Cement
Ruckus Catastrophe
Hooligan Nightmare
Parsimonious Adder
Bubble Knife
Radar Path
Stuttering Cavern
Jalapeno Surprise
Startled Ultimatum
Contraption Bingo

Saturday, July 14, 2018

7 Hours of Painting

The Coke machines aren't finished, of course. I'm not sure how I'm going to manage the logo without spilling white paint all over the parts that are supposed to be red...

These are zombie miniatures for Last Night on Earth. I managed to finish 12, probably another two dozen to go. 

Sean came over to paint with me, and made a lot of progress on his Blood Bowl team. We also watched seven episodes of Knight Rider in glorious high definition. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon. 

Friday, July 13, 2018

Meanwhile, on Jeff Shyluk's Visual Blog: Sim Bleak House

A couple of weeks ago I found an old CD-ROM with some of my friend Jeff's art, specifically, art he'd created to customize characters in popular sandbox computer simulation The Sims. Jeff and I had a brief e-mail exchange about the old files, and I wrote, in part:

"I'm sure you created these skins for either the first iteration of The Sims, or The Sims 2 at the latest - but I'm sure it was The Sims. I, too, recreated the Bleak House of Blahs to run SimEarl, SimCarrie, SimRon and SimAllan through their paces, and I can still feel the bruises from the belly laughs. Most disturbing was the misery the Sims endured, how perfectly it mirrored our early-20s ennui and angst. I loved it most when one or more of us peed our pants with a plaintive 'Poo poo pee dee!' I was happy to see your memories captured in your recent blog post."

To see 1990s me, Allan, Carrie and Ron brought to virtual life, check out Jeff's story on the subject

Thursday, July 12, 2018

White Flagged

Dido's "White Flag" has stayed with me since I first heard it, and it remains a favourite, even though it makes me profoundly sad. I can never be sure of how to read the song properly. On the one hand, it seems a bit pathetic; here's a smart, talented woman pining over a man, vowing that he's the only one she'll ever love, even if it means being alone forever. And yet, if she stays true to that vow, part of me really admires the purity of her passion and her determination. I guess I love the song because it feels authentic, revealing a truth little-remarked upon: there are people out there who spend their entire lives single, either because they never found the right person, they're genuine loners who don't feel any need to mate, or, like the character in this song, they found the right person but the love isn't reciprocated. (The music video, of course, intimates that the object of the singer's affections does indeed return them, but you can't tell that from the lyrics alone.)

In many ways, this song speaks to a very powerful emotion that I endured for much of my 20s. Unrequited love is painful, but there's also something sweet about it, and even, perhaps, noble, as long as you really do manage to keep it to yourself to spare the object of your affections the awkwardness of having to reject you. On the other hand, there's a strong vein of cowardice and passive aggressiveness weaved into that narrative, too.

Something to think about. And a good reminder to myself to reflect on how lucky I've been to have love since meeting Sylvia. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Earl's Celebrity Encounters

Circa 1984/85, Con-Version science fiction conventions, Calgary: Peter David (author, various media tie-in novels and popular comic books) secured autograph and exchanged a few words, Bjo Trimble (noted famous Star Trek fan, helped drive letter-writing campaign that forestalled cancellation of the original series), exchanged words in elevator; David Brin (author, Kiln Time, Earth, The Postman, etc.); witness to brief encounter in elevator when friend nearly backed into Brin's child)

1986, Edmonton car show: James Doohan (actor, Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, Star Trek); presented him with a t-shirt I designed with Stephen Fitzpatrick; Doohan accepted the gift with great grace, even though the shirt was obviously several sizes too small

September 1987, Ottawa: Brian Mulroney, Prime Minster of Canada

Circa 1988/98, Edmonton science fiction convention: Mark Lenard (actor, Sarek, Star Trek); enjoyed brief 10-15 minute conversation, so starstruck I immediately forgot details

September 2010, Chateau Lacombe, Edmonton: James Cameron (director, The Terminator, Terminator 2, Aliens, Avatar, etc.), had brief chat as part of Official Opposition Leader David Swann's delegation during Cameron's visit to Edmonton and the oil sands

December 2010, University of Alberta: Ed Stelmach, Premier of Alberta

April 2016, Calgary Expo: William Shatner (actor, Star Trek), paid photo opportunity, exchanged a single warm-hearted phrase. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Mom Celebrates Another Trip Around the Sun

And we're all so happy to have her. Here's a shot of Mom and Dad during a balmy early 1970s Manitoba winter. Happy Birthday, Mom!

Monday, July 09, 2018

An Atari Oral History

Atari shaped my childhood and teenage years, and there's a brief but tantalizing oral history of the early months of the company over at Medium. I think I would have loved working at a place so informal, though the rampant drug use and treatment of women would have been difficult to stomach.  

Sunday, July 08, 2018

G&G XIII Poster

I finally hung my print of Jeff Shyluk's amazing poster for Gaming & Guinness XIII. To learn how Jeff approached the project, you can visit his blog here, here, and here. Vroom! 

Saturday, July 07, 2018

The Cuban Lunch Crisis

October 9-12, 1972
Saskatchewan-Manitoba border
Trans-Canada Highway

On the Saskatchewan side: 3,000 cargo trucks filled with 50,000 Cuban Lunch treats per truck
On the Manitoba side: 27,000 cargo trucks filled with 35,000 Cuban Lunch treats per truck

Potential casualties in the event all Cuban Lunches were consumed in one gastronomic conflagration: 997,000 spread across Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and North Dakota

Result: tactical victory for Saskatchewan - strategic victory for Manitoba

Friday, July 06, 2018

Leave Yourself Behind

The fading sun
Signals at last the final hour has come
You're the last one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind
And it's time to move on and
Leave yourself behind

Those old childhood dreams now shattered like glass
Hopes and ambitions consigned to the past
Dark angels are coming and the clocks will unwind
Now it's time to move on and
Leave yourself behind
Leave yourself behind

How many warnings did mankind ignore?
All that scheming and striving, what was it all for? 
Did you really all think you would get out alive? 
That one special species destined to survive? 

Your hubris your pride your boundless arrogance
It's all come to this and you haven't a chance
Your heroic feats are just games of the mind
Just surrender now and 
Leave yourself behind
Leave yourself behind

Surrender now and
Leave yourself behind
Leave yourself behind

I see you still plotting, prepared for a fight
Your stubborn and stupid mad quest for the light

Why won't you
Why won't you
Why can't you

Leave yourself behind
Leave yourself behind
Leave yourself behind
Leave yourself behind

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Rod Taylor's Breakfast

Steak: rare, bloody
Eggs: soft and runny
Potatoes: naught
Tea: nice and strong
Covfeve: bad for you

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

At the Oasis

At dusk, the dreadnought's nose
Peeks over the crest of a dune
Surges forward, up and over
Sandwake splashing
A radical with root beer
The mug ice-cold, thick with frost
Offers a draught to the dreadnaught and the drought
The gunports open

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

A Solo without Soul: Solo, Reviewed

I've long maintained that fictional universes, if the worldbuilding is solid enough, can support an almost endless well of good stories, provided those stories are compelling. For that reason, I'm not against the idea of endless Star Wars spinoffs; I ask only that they be good.

Solo: A Star Wars Story isn't good. Neither is it terrible, but considering I was inventing a more interesting film in my head as I screened this one, coupled with the unfortunate fact that I dozed off during the spice mines "action" sequence, it's clear there's plenty of room for improvement.

We meet our titular hero, Han Solo, on the mean streets of Corellia, stealing and scrounging for a means of escaping the hardscrabble life he shares with his girlfriend, Qi'ra. They find the means within the first five minutes of the film, but they're tragically separated during the escape. Han makes it offworld and joins the Imperial Navy, hoping to become a pilot, but winds up as an infantryman on some anonymous muddy world instead. Another five minutes later, he meets Chewbacca and they escape that particular hellhole with a trio of hyperfuel smugglers.

The rest of the film is comprised of a series of capers as various bands of criminals and other interests steal the hyperfuel from each other. Naturally Han and Chewie meet Lando Calrissian along the way, and no prizes for guessing Han winds up in possession of the famous Millennium Falcon by the end of the film.

I will say this for the film: the action is competently staged, the performances are decent-to-good (with a couple of critical exceptions, which I'll note below), and director Ron Howard manages to slightly broaden the scope of the Star Wars universe with a couple of new planets and factions. The brief glimpses we see of the Empire are some of the most interesting in the film--but they come and go far too quickly.

I was also happy with Chewbacca's presentation; he steals most of his scenes, and maybe it's the nostalgia talking, but I found his presence comforting and familiar. I also thought Qi'ra had the film's only truly interesting character arc, and Emilia Clarke brought the character to vivid life. Finally, multi-armed alien Rio provides some necessary warmth and humour in the first act of the film.

That concludes the good parts. Three major flaws prevented me from taking the film seriously, or even really enjoying it as entertainment:

  • Performances. I'm a huge fan of Donald Glover, and I thought he'd be perfect as Lando Calrissian. But to my surprise, Glover's performance is so distant and disinterested that I started to wonder if he found the material beneath him. Frankly, if he felt that way, I wouldn't blame him; the screenplay reveals nothing particularly new about Calrissian, except that he once had feelings for a droid. I was also underwhelmed by Woody Harrelson's turn as smuggler Tobias Beckett, and, sadly, with Alden Ehrenreich as Solo, who's game for the considerable challenge of filling Harrison Ford's boots, but who I simply can't believe as a younger version of the icon Ford created. 
  • Story. Put simply, this is the laziest, easiest possible version of any backstory that could have been conceived for this character. Han starts and finishes the movie as a criminal, growing only in the sense that he trusts people a tiny bit less (but even this growth is undercut by seeding a countervailing appreciation for the nascent Rebellion). At its core, this is a static film. The Empire is ascendant, criminal gangs scrabble for the Empire's leavings, and people everywhere just struggle to survive. Moreover, the basic structure is: chase, escape, chase, escape, card game, chase, betrayal, chase, firefight, betrayal, escape, firefight, betrayal, card game. Each beat is ponderously predictable. 
  • Lack of ambition. This is closely tied to story, but aside from the writers failing to find an interesting backstory for Solo, they also make a point of explaining backstory that would have been better left as personal legend: to wit, the Kessel Run. It's the sort of thing that works better when implied rather than explained; seeing it takes the awe and wonder out of it. Similarly, there's a ham handed attempt to address a longstanding problem with the Star Wars universe: android rights. The droids, as depicted in the films, are clearly supposed to be sapient beings, and yet they're treated as slaves, even by the "heroic" Rebellion. Lando's robot in Solo is an outspoken android rights activist, but her concerns are played for laughs and quickly forgotten--another wasted opportunity, among many. 
I'm no storyteller, but even I can come up with some seeds that might have made for a more compelling film. Why not start off with a Han Solo unlike the one we're familiar with? What if Han was a Corellian child of privilege who idealistically accepted Imperial propaganda, and joined up with the intention of helping bring law and order to the galaxy? What if he did indeed become an elite Imperial pilot, and only gradually, through earned experience, began to question his actions and those of the Empire he grew up idealizing? What if those experiences made him the sarcastic loner we see in the original films? What if the heroic Han Solo we knew from those films had, even with the best intentions, done real evil to innocents and the Rebellion? 

Instead, as presented in Solo, Han seems to have been born a lovable rogue, essentially the same guy we know and love from our childhoods. It's a missed opportunity of galactic proportions. 

For a different take on the film, see my friend Steve's review

Monday, July 02, 2018

Bass-ic Instinct

If I were a musician, I imagine I'd be a bass guitar player, just hanging back, cool and professional, strumming away just out of the spotlight.

It would either be that or the harmonica. But I don't live in that particular universe, so all I can do is imagine. 

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Starlight Exodus

The aughts and teens peeled off,
Hyperdrives spraying rainbow wakes
Slicing through the ether
Stars shimmering across the firmament
While their cities died below