Science, Fiction, Life

Month: November 2014

Rapid Fire Reviews: Interstellar, Catching Fire, The Postman, Dangerous Women,The Book Thief

I’ve been super busy so I have fallen behind on reviewing things here, but I have still been consuming lots of media, so here are some rapid fire reviews.

The Book Thief

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This is a well-written story about a girl living in World War 2 era Germany. The plot builds a little too slowly for my taste, but the characters are great, and the writing is excellent, with lots of vivid, often surreal imagery. I listened to the audiobook and the reader was very good. Note: this is a book set during WWII, narrated by Death. So yeah, it’s gonna be sad.

Dangerous Women

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This is a collection of short stories and novellas edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardener Dozois, with contributions from tons of big names in the fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and noir/mystery genres. I actually haven’t finished it, but I’m about 3/4 of the way through and I can comment on what I’ve listened to so far. As with all anthologies, the stories are a bit hit or miss. In theory, the uniting theme is the title of the anthology “Dangerous Women”, but the various stories interpret this differently. Be warned, these are not all feminist stories about strong female characters, though there are plenty of those. A few standouts so far are: Megan Lindholm (aka Robin Hobb)’s story “Neighbors”, about an older woman grappling with alzheimers was powerful and sad. The genre elements of the story gave it a satisfying ending, but in a way it felt like cheating because in real life someone in the protagonist’s situation doesn’t have that option. Brandon Sanderson’s “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” was a very nice story, and in this shorter form, his signature worldbuilding skills are even more impressive than in his novels, in my opinion. The story is set in a pretty traditional medieval fantasy setting, but the way Sanderson builds that setting so deftly, while weaving in the uniqueness that drives the story, is just really impressive. “Bombshells” was my first taste of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, which I’ve been meaning to check out for a while. Despite having a massive spoiler in it, this story was a good, fun introduction to some characters in the series, and very strongly reminded me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As for the bad, I didn’t much like “My Heart is Either Broken” by  Megan Abbott, and I found “I know how to pick ’em” by Lawrence Block to be downright awful. Not the writing, mind you: it was well-written, but the story itself is just disturbing and gross and I wish I had not read it.

The Postman

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This is a classic post-apocalyptic book, and I am glad I finally got around to reading it. I’m in the midst of playing Wastelend 2, a post-apocalyptic computer game, and the long-awaited sequel to Wasteland, which came out in 1988. Wasteland inspired the Fallout series of games, and it is pretty clear that The Postman was one of the inspirations for Wasteland. Anyway, The Postman was a rare example of a post-apocalyptic novel that is somewhat optimistic. The premise is that the main character finds an old mail-carrier’s uniform, and survives by telling people he has come from the Restored United States. Except his lie starts to have a life of its own. Much like The Stand, another classic post-apocalyptic novel, this one is at its best in the beginning and then starts to lose its magic toward the end. In particular (spoilers coming up) I found it annoying that, after spending the book showing that people working together and helping each other is far better than the “survival of the fittest” mentality of the bad guys, the climax of the novel involved the good guys recruiting someone who was big and strong enough to fight the evil general. It would have been more fitting with the theme of the novel if, say, they had outsmarted the survivalists, or incited a revolt, or something. Also, this book seems to think that it is feminist, but it never quite gets there. There are women who do courageous things at the end, but even as the main character praises them, he can’t help but call them crazy. Also, the man character is constantly sleeping with naive young women 10 years or more younger than him. But criticisms aside, this was still an enjoyable post-apocalyptic novel with a rare positive spin on things.

Mockingjay Part 1: Catching Fire

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I am annoyed at the trend in Hollywood of splitting up movies into multiple parts to make more money. But unlike in some cases (like the travesty that are the Hobbit movies) the Hunger Games movies are consistently really good and Catching Fire was no exception. It doesn’t feel bloated at all (unlike the Hobbit movies), the acting is good, and as far as I can tell it is pretty faithful to the book (though it’s been a while since I read the series). I suspect that Part 2 may actually be better than the book, since my main memory of the book is a series of increasingly crazy action scenes that I suspect will be better on screen than on the page. Anyway, This series of movies continues to be surprisingly good, even despite the obvious money grab of splitting the third book into two movies. Also? Actual competent and strong female characters! Plural! Not even dressed in implausible “sexy” costumes!

Interstellar

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This movie was great, and emotionally draining. Without giving too much away, I would describe Interstellar as basically a combination of 2001, Contact, and Moon, which if you know me, you know is high praise. For a movie about interstellar travel, the science is surprisingly good, though not so fanatically obsessed with staying realistic as to hurt the story. Great demonstrations of the effects of general relativity and simulating gravity in a rotating spacecraft. Not so great understanding of tidal forces or planetary remote sensing. There are a few times when the characters give somewhat ham-handed speeches but mostly the writing and acting are very good. I can definitely see this being excellent at an IMAX theater.

 

 

Want to Read my Novel (draft)?

It’s November, and for those of us with the inclination to write, that means one thing: National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)! Anyone who writes either has taken the plunge and is vomiting words into a mess of a first draft every night in an effort to reach 50,000 words by the end of the month, or else knows others who have taken on the challenge.

I’ve decided not to participate in NaNoWriMo this year. My September and October were rather stressful this year and so I’m trying to relax a bit before things get crazy again with conferences and holidays. Besides, I haven’t finished editing my novel from last year. Unfortunately, I seem to have lost my momentum on last year’s novel, and I think it’s time to set it aside and start something else. I cheated a bit last year and instead of starting on November 1 with a blank page, I was already 15,000 words or so into a draft. Now, after some editing to fill in gaps, the manuscript stands at about 83,000 words, and I have decided that, if I’m going to set it aside and start another project, the least I can do is share what I’ve got with anyone who is interested.

Now, before I post the link, a caveat, and some requests.

Caveat: This is a draft. It is rough around the edges (and in the middle, and pretty much everywhere…), and there are all sorts of problems with it that I should fix. If you get far enough you will find characters that disappear or appear out of nowhere, gaps in the plot, missing scenes and chapters, and notes to myself that I haven’t yet addressed. You’ll also notice that the chapters may be broken up strangely – this is a side effect of the program I use for writing. I spent approximately 3 seconds compiling all the individual chapter and scene documents into the final manuscript, and didn’t bother with fixing little details. You’re seeing a work in progress. I wouldn’t even call it a second draft, since my edits didn’t even make it through the novel once. It’s maybe a 1.5th draft.

Requests: I am done working on this novel for the time being, but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in what you think. I would love to hear your general, big-picture comments. Namely, what do you observe in reading this that I need to work on when I try writing something new? (I have some things in mind, but I’d be curious to see if what I think matches with what you think) What (if anything) worked well? I’d also be interested to know if you think this novel is something that I should re-visit at some point and try to polish into a more final version, or if I should just learn what lessons I can from it and move on. Other general comments are also welcome. What I don’t want to hear about are little details like typos, bad grammar, or things that are so specific that they don’t really let me know how the writing is working as a whole.

With that said, here’s where you can download a PDF of the manuscript. If you’re on the fence, here’s a brief summary of what to expect: The novel is set in an alternate world, but the major events and characters are modeled closely on the Spanish conquest of the Incas. The main characters Rimaq and Saya are twin siblings who find themselves on opposing sides of the war: Rimaq as a translator for the invading conquerors, and Saya as a leader of the resistance. There is no magic or anything, but it is not set on Earth and the cultures depicted are not meant to be exact representations of the Inca or the Spanish although there are a lot of similarities.

Read as much or as little as you like/can stand, and let me know via email what you think. (And even though the manuscript is at a public link, please don’t share the manuscript widely without my permission.)

Some thoughts on turning 30

I turned 30 the other day. At the time, I was swamped with work while also hosting my dad who was in town helping us to build a proper deck to replace the old rickety one that came with the house. People asked me how it felt to reach such a milestone and I replied, honestly, that I hadn’t had much time to process it. Now that it’s been a little while, I can tell you how it feels. It feels like an ending and a beginning.

Turning 30 is, in a way, a culmination of a long period of my life that I would describe as “preparation.” For most of my life, everything has been geared toward preparing me for a nebulous future that has gradually come into focus. The goals have been concrete and well-defined. Graduate from high school. Get into a good college. Graduate from college. Get into a good grad school. Finish grad school. Get a good post-doc. Finish the post-doc, get a permanent position. Through a combination of hard work and what seems, at times, to be miraculous luck, I have achieved each of these goals in turn, right on schedule. As of a month ago, I have a permanent position doing the sort of work that I have been preparing for for most of my life. It’s a strange feeling to look to my future and see no distinct marker of achievement. There will be no more graduations and diplomas. No more term-limited positions.It is comforting but also somewhat terrifying to think that the job I have now is basically the job I will have twenty years from now. My years and years of professional preparation are over, and now it’s time to do the work I have trained for.

In parallel to my professional preparation, of course, there is the personal “preparation” for adulthood. College taught independence, and a certain level of comfort with who I am. I met my wife as college was ending. We moved in together in grad school. We went on vacations together. We got a dog. We got engaged. We got married. We moved across the country. We bought a house. All the while, we were learning the million lessons that go into figuring out how to live life as an adult.

Like having a permanent job, owning a house has been a strange experience. When you move away  to college, you go from a place that you call “home” to having no real permanent home. At first, the length of time spent living somewhere is very short, just one school year per dorm room. Then I moved to a rental house (interspersed with brief stays over the summer at various internships). In grad school I lived in a condo and after 5 years it was starting to feel like home, but at the same time, I always knew that it would not be permanent, that I would have to leave after I graduated. It was difficult to leave, but inevitable.

In Arizona we briefly lived in an apartment but then finally bought a house and settled in. And now, with a permanent job here, it looks likely that we will be living in this house for a long time. It’s finally safe to call a place “home” again, after years of withholding that term.

Turning 30 feels like an ending because it coincides with the end of this long stage of my life that has been preparation for living it. Now a new stage is beginning, called Being An Adult. It is bittersweet to reach this point. The hardest part for me is knowing that, going forward, I will never have more free time than I do right now. My job responsibilities continue to increase, and in all likelihood Erin and I will be starting a family in the next few years and what remains of our free time will be consumed by caring for kids. Of course these are all good things. On the work front it is great to feel that what I do is important, and that people depend upon me. On the personal front, I think having kids is going to be wonderful. But that doesn’t change the fact that it will fundamentally change my life.

It’s frustrating because even now, with the most free time that I am likely to ever have until I retire, I never get done what I want to do. I have achieved most of the goals that I have set for my career, and so the next major goal that I have set for myself is to write a book that gets published. And yet, when I have some free time, more often than not it’s spent on social media or playing video games rather than writing. I may be an adult, but a part of me still clings to childhood. I know that my days of having free time are numbered, and so I furtively play video games, allowing them to transport me back to a time when I had few responsibilities and all the time in the world. I really do enjoy gaming, but then I end up feeling guilty about it. Because if my days of having free time are numbered, then I should be spending that time productively, working on my writing, working toward my next Big Goal.

I have struggled with this conflict between the part of me that wants to make the most of my dwindling free time by relaxing with some games, and the part of me that wants to make the most of it by doing something productive, for years. It’s a conflict between who I am and who I want to be. Between present-me and future-me. Recently the conflict has intensified, and neither side is willing to budge. If I could give up on writing and give myself full permission to just relax and play some games or watch TV, I’d probably be happier. Likewise, if I could quit gaming and actually get some writing done, I would probably be happier. I keep clinging to the hope that I will somehow find a way to balance the two sides. My spreadsheet experiment is the closest I’ve been able to get to reaching that happy medium, but it completely fell apart in the last couple months when I got overwhelmed by work responsibilities. I will be re-starting it soon, but how long before something else comes along and consumes all my free time?

I guess that’s a big part of growing older: learning how best to use the time that we have. And figuring out what “best” even means in this context. I’m still working on that one, and I probably always will be. I expect that my answer will change over the years as I get the hang of this new experience called Being an Adult. It’s sad to see the end of my long “preparation” phase, and intimidating to contemplate where I go from here, but it’s also exciting. I somehow seem to have managed to do a pretty good job of “preparing” and I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds.

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