Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Writing (Page 1 of 2)

Poem: Hourglass Planet

I’m trying to get back into writing somewhat regularly, and I noticed some friends on Twitter posting using the hashtag #NaPoWriMo – National Poem Writing Month. Apparently it is the poetry equivalent of NaNoWriMo (Nationak Novel Writing Month), and you’re supposed to write one poem per day for the month of April. I’m not going to be able to keep up that pace, but I thought I might try my hand at some poetry. Poems are usually pretty bite-sized, and you’re actually supposed to agonize over every single word so my over-editing habits that slow me down for longer writing may actually be a good thing!

This first poem is inspired by this audio recording returned to Earth by Perseverance. Turn up the volume and listen to the sound of wind on Mars.

Hearing that recording got me thinking about how quiet Mars is. On the whole planet, the only things making any appreciable noise are Curiosity and Perseverance. Everywhere else it’s just the wind occasionally moving sand or dislodging a pebble or rock.

So without further ado, here’s the poem:

Hourglass Planet
Soft wind traces the faces of the rocks
And the world sounds like a held breath.

In that patient silence could you listen?

Sigh of wind 
hiss of sand
a pebble falls.


Or would you need to make noise?

Review: Game of Thrones Season 8

It’s over! Winter has come, and we know who ended up on the throne, who ended up dead, and how the White Walkers were defeated.

It is strange to be done. Although George R.R. Martin says that there are surprises in store in the final two books compared to the show, the main plot points are bound to be the same. I first read Game of Thrones something like 12 years ago, so I have been swept up in the story for about a third of my life. I named my dog Renly after the Game of Thrones character. I re-read the whole series, aloud, with Erin ahead of the release of A Dance With Dragons.

I remember being in New York city the weekend of the premiere of the show. There were Iron Thrones in a few places throughout the city, and there was almost no line to sit in them and get your picture taken. Most people didn’t know what this show, with the posters of Sean Bean looking sad, was about. I remember watching that first episode in our hotel room, through a very highly suspect, likely malware-ridden site. It was a magical experience, seeing the story that you love come to life on the screen, and what’s more, with such fidelity to the source material.

It is disappointing that Martin was not able to finish the book series before the show. Although quite faithful to the books at the start, as the show went on, it had the luxury of pruning plot lines and streamlining the story for TV, while Martin labors away with the books, juggling an ever-increasing number of plotlines. At times this was a great benefit for the show, and it had moments of brilliance, but as the show got farther and farther from the source material, those moments become more widely spaced. Without the strong foundation of the books, the show lurched from plot point to plot point, and the different writers and directors in different combinations led to an uneven experience. Sometimes, when the writing and directing all lined up, the show was astonishingly good. Other times, for all of its big-budget glamor, the show seemed shallow and lazy, with gratuitous gore and sex as if to say “look what we can do because we’re HBO,” and with characters betraying their backstories or just acting stupidly in order to bring events to a key plot event.

This was never more evident than in the last season. The first couple of episodes were quite good. I especially enjoyed the second episode, which is focused on all of the characters we know and love waiting together in Winterfell for the army of the Night King to descend upon them. It had lots of beautiful, human, character-driven moments. It reminded us of the tangled web of relationships that have been built up over the previous seasons. But after that episode, the rest of the season had the feeling of a homework assignment where the student has a cheat sheet with the correct answers but runs out of time and just scrawls those answers in the blanks without showing their work. Probably because that is almost exactly what happened: the showrunners knew what had to happen because Martin provided them with an outline, but they didn’t have the writing chops to pull it off. Bringing a story this massive and complex in for a graceful landing is more difficult than most people realize. Still, I can’t help but feel like there are some pretty obvious flaws in the final season. Unforced mistakes that, especially with an extra year’s hiatus to work on the final season, were really disappointing. Such a great story deserved better than what we got.

I know a lot of people are upset about the actual end results: who ended up dead, who ended up alive, and who ended up on the throne. I was actually ok with most of it. Let’s consider each of the main characters:

Jaime – It’s such a George R.R. Martin move to take a literal knight in shining armor, make him a king-killing, child-murdering, twincestuous villain, then make you spend enough time in his head to start to root for him, and then once you think he has become the good knight you wish he was, have his old vices win out in the end. The problem, as we will repeatedly see with other characters, is that the show didn’t spend enough time on the character development leading to his final acts. It spent multiple seasons building up his redemption arc, and then Sansa mentions that Cersei might be in danger from the giant armies and dragons headed her way (shocking!), and suddenly he is on the fastest horse south. We needed to see his struggles with his inner demons. We needed to witness his facade crumble in the face of a threat to that which, in spite of his best intentions, he loved most dearly. The show handled it too abruptly, so what should have been a more poignant and tragic end was not fully earned.

Cersei – I was disappointed with Cersei’s ending, but not because she died in Jaime’s arms. Her arc was a sort of mirror image of his: while he appeared to find redemption and then turned his back on it to be with Cersei, Cersei appeared to become even more evil and insane than she started, and convinced herself that she no longer loved him, only to find comfort in his arms at the end. Unfortunately, leading up to her end, she basically just stood around. What happened to the cunning, ruthless Cersei we loved to hate? Part of the problem here may be her bizarre affair with Euron Greyjoy. He was such an outlandish character that his story line sucked up a lot of the oxygen that should have been devoted to Cersei.

Tyrion – Overall I thought Tyrion’s ending was fine. My main complaint was that I had trouble remembering why he was supposedly so devoted to Danaerys that it took a literal holocaust for him to see that maybe that loyalty was misplaced. Him ending up as hand of the king to a Stark has a certain poetic justice to it, and he has the smarts and experience with the conniving politics of King’s Landing to make a very good foil for an overly noble and idealistic Stark king.

Danaerys – Of all the characters, I think Dany’s end was the one that needed to be handled with the most care, and in turn was the one most poorly served by the final season’s rushed pace and weak writing. I think in the right hands, with enough insight into what is going on in her mind, and enough time for her character to develop, her ending is going to be powerful and convincing and tragic. In other words, I am really looking forward to reading the book’s handling of her ending, and I am really disappointed that I had to see the clumsy way the show handled it first. The show skipped the hard work of character development and had her sulk in her room for a few days, and then flip out and nuke a city full of innocents. Tyrion’s speeches to Jon in the final episode tried to make up for the lack of justification leading up to her breakdown, but they were too little too late. There are hints of real insight into how evil acts are done by people who think they are the “good guys” but the poor character development this season prevented Dany’s ending from being what it could have been.

Bran – One of the major themes of Game of Thrones is that those who are most hungry for power are those least suited to rule. Also, a failure to recognize how events in the past echo forward to influence the present and future. (It’s almost as if fantasy can have meaningful lessons that apply to real life!) So, a kind man with near-omniscient knowledge of events past, present, and future, with no real desire to rule, and no children makes sense as an ideal king. I’m on board with Bran as king. What is less clear and I think was pretty clumsy is why the nobility of Westeros were suddenly willing to hold a vote for who would be king. (I did love Sam’s attempt at inventing democracy being summarily shot down by the nobles.) As an aside, can we mention the way that the show conveniently skipped the part where Grey Worm found out what happened to Danaerys and somehow did not summarily execute Jon and Tyrion, and furthermore allowed Tyrion to make grand speeches leading to a vote for the new leader? And how the Dothraki seemingly disappeared? That was sure something.

Sansa – My prediction for a long time was that Sansa would end up on the Iron Throne. Her arc, especially in the books, was all about going from an innocent pretty pretty princess to learning to survive and then thrive in the ugly, brutal, real world of court intrigue. She learned from Tyrion, the Hound, Cersei, and most of all Littlefinger. She was clearly being groomed by Martin for leadership. I had assumed that Jon and Dany (Ice and Fire) would die in the climactic battle against the White Walkers and Sansa would be left to rule over the ruins of a Westeros that barely survived. All in all I was not too far off: at least Sansa ended up on a throne, if not The Throne. Her decision not to join up with the other kingdoms under Bran’s rule is a little odd, but not too much of a stretch.

Arya – She killed the Night King! That was pretty great, even though most of the rest of that episode was too dark to see anything. Unfortunately after that, anything else was going to be kind of anticlimactic. I am absolutely on board with her realizing that there is no place for her in Westeros and setting out to do something else, but again, I wish there had been any build-up at all to her decision to become an explorer. You may have heard of Chekov’s Gun. The saying goes: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” To me Arya’s ending is the exact opposite. She is firing a rifle that we didn’t know existed. Where is it mentioned that she has an interest in exploring the world? Where does that desire come from? Why have we not heard of it before literally the last minute? Again, I am totally onboard with Arya, intrepid explorer. I would watch that spinoff show. But as with so much in this final season, the show didn’t do the work to get there. It skipped over the necessary character development, so it all seemed to come out of the blue.

Jon – Once it became clear that Danaerys was going full “Mad Queen” it was obvious that Jon was going to have to kill her. I also think his insistence that he did not want the throne was in keeping with his character. He was always a reluctant leader and ruler. And, although it was not shown, it is also in keeping with his character that even though Drogon showed up, torched the evidence and flew away with Dany’s body, Jon would go and admit to killing her and end up in jail. In the end, he was the most Ned Stark like of them all. I thought him being sent back to the wall was rather anticlimactic, but his arc was a hard one to wrap up. He doesn’t really fit anywhere else but it feels wrong to have him exiled for doing the right thing. Poor Jon deserved to retire to someplace warm, but of course he would never sit still for that. The final shots of the show seemed to imply that maybe the North was thawing and he would found a new kingdom up beyond the wall, which I guess works for me.

So, overall I am satisfied with the main plot points, but I am disappointed in how poor a job the show did with getting to them. Time after time, it didn’t devote enough time to develop the characters such that their endings felt fully earned. I’m sad that I didn’t get to find out the ending by reading the books, where Martin can spend as much time as he wants doing that hard writing work and making each twist and turn feel as powerful as it should be. But that also means that I am hopeful that Martin will finally finish the last two books and that we will eventually get to read the ending as it is supposed to be.

I am also hopeful for what will come after Game of Thrones. The show became a cultural phenomenon and made the entire world realize the kinds of powerful stories that can be told through speculative fiction. Sci-fi and fantasy are thoroughly mainstream now and Game of Thrones played an important role in making that happen. There are already many amazing shows following in Game of Thrones’ footsteps, and I can’t wait to see more.

A Sonnet for Opportunity

I wrote the poem above as an ode to the Mars rover Opportunity, which has been in hibernation since a global dust storm earlier this summer blocked out the sun. Not great for a solar powered rover. But on the other hand, global dust storms warm the atmosphere, so it’s possible the rover will wake up and phone home… we just need to keep listening. I got my start in planetary science working on the MER rovers, so Opportunity holds a special place in my heart, and a poem seemed like a nice way to honor such an amazing mission. Whether Opportunity wakes up or not, 14 years is pretty good for a mission built to last only 90 days.

I opted for a sonnet because they come with a nicely defined structure to follow, which makes the bank page a little less intimidating. There are two main forms of sonnet in English, the Shakespearean and the Petrarchan sonnet. I went with the Petrarchan since it is formatted as a sort of point/counterpoint, which fit with what I wanted to say. It also has the more challenging rhyme scheme and I’m a glutton for punishment.

It took a surprisingly long time to write this poem, but I am pleased with the result. People seemed to enjoy it when I shared it on social media; one online acquaintance (Seán Doran) even made an alternative version of it, using the same image but with realistic colors and an artificially extended sky, and the rover photoshopped onto the tracks.

I am considering making planetary poems a recurring thing. They’re a nice way to satisfy both sides of my brain, with a nice mix of writing, science, and graphic design. And they’re good for sharing on social media. For now I’ll probably stick to structured forms: sonnets and haiku, depending on how ambitious I’m feeling. I’m open to ideas for topics, so feel free to make suggestions in the comments!


Book Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

For the majority of popular authors out there, especially in genres like sci-fi and fantasy, it’s all about the plot. Prose exists to tell you what’s going on and otherwise its job is to get out of the way and try to be as “invisible” as possible. That’s why it was so refreshing to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The prose in this book is the opposite of that bland “invisible” utilitarian prose that is so common. It’s so good that it is hard to even find the words to convey it. The difference between other authors’ writing and the writing on display in Kavalier and Clay is like the difference between those sleepy ponies that give kids a nice safe ride at the state fair and a thoroughbred racehorse on a straightaway. You get so used to safe, easy, invisible prose that when a book comes along that really shows you what the English language can do, its power is breathtaking and exhilarating. Seeing it used to its full potential relieves a tension you didn’t even know was there.

There’s so much to gush about when it comes to Chabon’s writing, but one of the most noticeable things for me was the skill with which characters are introduced. Even for minor characters who are present for a scene or two, he somehow manages to deploy the perfect metaphor, the perfect few details of their appearance and demeanor, so that in a paragraph you not only know what the person looks like, but you know their backstory, their motivation, their family life, their aspirations and disappointments in life. You feel like you know the person, like you’re pretty sure you’ve met the person in real life.

It’s not just the descriptions of people, it’s all the descriptions. Chabon manages to find the perfect words every time so that it’s not just a description, it’s a visceral feeling. It’s familiar even if there’s no reason it should be. And somehow this is done without feeling like the prose is bloated. The only complaint I have is that he does have a tendency to use an unusual word when a more common one would do fine. It’s a fine line to walk: sometimes the less common word has shades of meaning that are missing from the everyday one. But sometimes it just sounds pretentious. And I’ll admit, there were a couple of times, for some reason both involving violent events, that the word choices and figurative language was so unusual I didn’t actually understand what happened except by context clues. But for the most part, I think the writing falls on the correct side of the fine line.

So what’s the book about? It is nominally about two Jewish cousins, one from New York, one a WWII refugee from Czechoslovakia, who team up to create a superhero comic. I was never much of a fan of comics, but I am enough of a SFF fan that I have absorbed some comics knowledge through osmosis. One of the coolest things about Kavalier and Clay was seeing Chabon use the strength of his prose to convey the power of the story being told by the comics in such a way that an adult reader gets the same feelings as a kid reading the comic.

But comics are just the surface veneer. The main theme of the story is “Escape” and whether it’s a good thing or not, ranging from the escapism of comic books, to escaping the War, to escaping the city to settle for living the American dream in the suburbs, to escaping from that sterile and boring suburban life to be who you really are, etc. I’m not doing it justice of course: it is very well done, perfectly walking the line between ham-fisted and too subtle.

I also found it interesting to see many familiar threads appear in Kavalier and Clay that I recognized from Chabon’s collection of personal essays “Manhood for Amateurs.” Comic books and magic tricks, of course. But also a lot of melancholy and wistful reflections on growing up and nostalgia for childhood, fraternal (or in this case, cousinly) bonds, and the relationship between father and son.

It’s not a perfect book. I found the first half to be much more engaging than the second, as if once he was done introducing new characters, the writing lost some of its initial spark. That said, it was still excellent. The prose in Kavalier and Clay makes you feel things in a way that very few other authors are capable of, and it certainly cements Chabon’s place among my favorite authors.


What I’m Doing About the Election

Image from here

  1. Quitting the news and social media. Like most of the rest of the country, I spent this election watching in horrified fascination as the media relentlessly covered Donald Trump, providing free publicity for his campaign of lies, hate, fear and divisiveness. The media, like many of us, thought that exposing Trump for what he is would surely stop him. But instead, that non-stop media coverage is responsible in large part for his victory, because a significant portion of our country saw his behavior and instead of being appalled, saw a man giving voice to their own thoughts and fears (facts and decency be damned). Staying up to date with the latest news brings me little joy in the best of times, but now with the election still so fresh, I cannot look at the news without feeling physically ill. So I’m not. I was already considering quitting social media after the election because it was so addictive and was sucking up precious time, but now it’s not just a matter of saving time. It’s an act of self-defense and an act of protest. I’m going to try to use time I normally would have spent on social media on reading, writing, and family instead. I won’t be fully stopping social media – it’s still a useful tool – but I will be restricting my social media usage to posting things that I created and responding to notifications, direct messages, and the like. Yes, I’ll miss out on the cute animal memes and babies and jokes and other things that make social media enjoyable, but I think this is a necessary step for now.
  2. Donating. This is the easiest way I can fight back against a Trump presidency, a GOP-controlled congress, and a nation in which white supremacy, bigotry, and hate have surged into prominence. If you are feeling as sickened as me, here are some worthy causes to donate to. If you have others to recommend, post them as comments below:
  3. Writing. I have gotten so many kind and encouraging comments whenever I write about something emotional here on the blog, whether it is personal or political. I know it’s foolish to think that posting my thoughts and sharing them with the liberal echo chamber of my social network will make much of a difference, but the truth is, I need to do it anyway. Writing  helps me think, and lets me channel negative emotions into something cathartic if not necessarily positive. I’ve always thought that I wanted to write fiction (and I still do) but I always want my fiction to be perfect and it never is, so I get discouraged and stop. On the other hand, posting here about issues that are on my mind anyway is easy, and I think this may be one instance where doing what comes easier is the better choice. I have a LOT of thoughts rattling around in my brain after the election, and I plan to share them here for anyone who cares to read them. Maybe they will help in some small way. I will also be writing my representatives a lot more often than I have in the past. They are going to get sick of my letters.
  4. Volunteering. I don’t have time to volunteer. To be honest, much of the time I feel like I’m barely holding my life together, and we’re about to throw a baby into the mix. And yet, this election has made it clear that we can’t just sit back and assume that progress will happen. We have to fight for it every step of the way. I am not sure in what capacity I will volunteer, or how much time I’ll be able to devote to it, but I want to try doing something more than throwing money at groups that do good work and posting impassioned essays for my liberal friends to read and agree with. The challenge with volunteering, beyond just finding the time for it, is choosing from among the many worthy causes how to spend that time. Of the items on this list, this one is going to be by far the hardest, but I want to at least give it a try.

So that’s my list. What are you doing to cope with the election?

No Flash Fiction This Week!

So 1 week into my vow to post flash fiction every week, I am going to be skipping a week! Why? Well, first of all, my flash from last week was voted “Best Flash” from among the three entries so I provided one of the triggers. That means if I wrote this week I’d only have one to work from, and that can be an exercise in frustration. Also, I just spent the weekend army-crawling around in the crawlspace trying to insulate it and I’m pretty exhausted at the moment, so I think instead I’ll go watch an Episode of Stranger Things and get creeped out (if you aren’t watching that show, you should be!).

I’ll definitely be back in the Flash challenge next weekend, but in the meantime, enjoy the weird image I chose as one of this week’s triggers:


“Immortality” by Chenthooran

Flash Fiction: Liberty Hall Challenge #474 – Memory

I am going to try something new here. I recently got back into participating in the Flash Fiction challenges over at Liberty Hall Writers (a writing group that I first joined years ago while I was in grad school). Activity has died down in many of the forums at Liberty Hall compared to six years ago, but I was pleased to find that there is still a dedicated core group who participate in the weekly flash fiction challenges. I’ve decided that I am going to participate in the challenges when I can, and then post the results here on the blog. In theory, it messes up any chances of actually publishing the stories to post them here for free, but since I seem to be incapable of actually following through and polishing my flash pieces and submitting them anywhere, it seems to me that I might as well share them in some form. I think it may be good for me to post some of my writing here for all to see so I can get over the tendency to over-think and over-edit which so often causes me to bog down and lose my forward momentum.

Here’s how the flash challenges work: each week two “triggers” are provided. One is an image and one is a short bit of text. From the moment a writer sees the triggers, they have 90 minutes to come up with a story inspired by one or both of the triggers and submit it to the Liberty Hall site. Then,  everyone who participated in the challenge goes through and critiques the other stories and votes on which was best.

The stories I post here are going to be “hot off the presses” meaning I’ll post them here exactly as they are submitted to the challenge. 90 minutes worth of writing and editing and nothing more. I will not be posting the triggers, since I’m interested in how the stories work without knowledge of what inspired them.

Without further ado, here’s my flash fiction for this week. Enjoy!


In Kira’s memory, this place was supposed to be a paradise: blue water lapping against a pebble beach, and a tumble of lush vegetation spilling down almost to the water. Master Brock’s cabin was supposed to be right there, on the edge of the sea and the edge of the greenery. Now, the ocean was dark and violent, the vegetation was scorched away, and the sand had been fused into black, shattered glass. The cabin was gone, and Master Brock with it.

The ministers had called her in from a mission in the Silver Mountains to investigate what had happened. The kingdom of Ruhall was rumored to be gathering forces, and the assassination of the most powerful mage in Var seemed a likely precursor to an attack. But that was not why Kira had come back. She came back because she should have been there. She could have protected him from the attack or died trying. It was a student’s duty to serve and protect their master, and she had left him to diminish in a hut by the sea while she hunted for glory. What glory had she thought she could find that would be better than serving Brock the Wise?

The black glass crunched under Kira’s boots as she made her way toward the former site of her teacher’s cabin. She tried to take her bearings but the place had been so devastated, even the familiar landmarks were gone. Had the cabin been here, or was it over there? Kira doubled back to was she had come, trying to remember.

Her mind tried to recall the first time she had come to see Master Brock here. She had been just a girl, sent from the academy to learn at the feet of the master. She had worked so hard to earn that honor. She had reined in her horse at the top of that rise over there, and looked down at the idyllic location, and then the master had looked up from his vegetable garden and—

The memory slipped away. It had been so clear but the more she focused her mind’s eye on it, the more it seemed to unravel. It was like trying to remember a dream. Like reading words written on the surface of the sea.

There was something more at work here than her faulty memory. Whatever magic had destroyed her master and his home was still at work somehow, toying with her perceptions. The closer she got to her goal, to more the memories slipped away. She needed to get away before they were gone entirely, and any chance of learning what had happened vanished with them.

Kira returned to her gray horse, mounted and spurred away, following the path up to the lookout. When she got there and turned around, she hoped that she might see something, but there was nothing there. She tried to focus her mind on the memories she still retained. Memories of her training with the master away from the site of his destruction. They had stood in the very spot she was standing and practiced controlling the sea birds. In the deep forest to her back, they had foraged for herbs for the master’s healing salves and he had taught her to speak with the trees.

As she pieced together the memories of her time with master Brock, she began to see a path in her mind’s eye, like stones beneath a rushing rapids. Precarious footholds at best, but leading somewhere. She followed the path of memories. Part of her knew that she was still riding her horse, that they were returning to the shore by some subtly different route.

She saw the end of that route now. It terminated at the doorstep of a small house, half-seen, like a mirage atop the blackened landscape. Carefully, wary of losing the vision, Kira approached and opened the door to the house.

The shimmering illusions collapsed around her as she stepped inside. It was an ordinary cabin. Wood walls hung with tools, gaps between the boards inexpertly patched. A warm fire glowing in the hearth with a kettle of fish stew bubbling above it.

Master Brock sat by the fire, reading. He continued for a few more seconds before marking his place with a bony finger and looking up.

“Hello, Kira.”

“Master Brock?”

“You found me.”

“But you’re dead!”

“Am I? I have to say I thought death would feel different. Cold and painful. But here I am, quite comfortable.” He gave her a wry smile and closed the book. He gestured at the other chair by the fire. “Take a seat my dear.”

Kira, unable to do anything else, obeyed. She opened her mouth to speak but master Brock cut across her words.

“The magistrates sent you, didn’t they?”

“Yes, to investigate your assassination at the hands of Ruhall.”

“Ruhall? What are they on about? Ruhall hasn’t dared to attack us in a century.”

“They just did! They blasted you into the void!”

“They did no such thing!” Master Brock seemed indignant.

Kira rubbed her temples. “Clearly, since you are still here. But if it was not an assassination attempt what happened?”

“Oh, I got tired of those bureaucrats telling me what to do. I have research ideas of my own, you know, but they were always ordering me to come up with ways to make bigger explosions or more efficient farmland. Boring.”

“So you staged your own death and prompted a war with Ruhall because you were bored?”

“No! Well, yes to the latter. But I have no interest in Ruhall.” He levitated a ladle full of stew from the pot to his lips and sipped cautiously, then nodded. “Soup’s ready. Stay and have some. But then I suppose you had better get back on the road and tell the magistrates not to go to war on my account.”

“I can tell them that you are alive then?”

“No, of course not. A student’s job is to protect her master.” Kira realized that he was very serious. He had cast a subtle spell even as they spoke. She literally would be unable to tell them. “But I’m sure you will think of something.”

Orange is the New Black is the best show on TV

Yes, better than Game of Thrones. Those of you who know me and how much I enjoy Game of Thrones will recognize what it means for me to make a statement like that, but I just finished watching Season 4 of Orange is the New Black (OITNB) and it blew me away. Some shows are good at first but fizzle as they use up their source material and have to start inventing their own. OITNB is the exact opposite: Season 1 is easily the weakest because it tries to sort of follow the premise of the book that inspired the show. It focuses on Piper Chapman, the naive young white woman who finds herself in jail for transporting drug money a decade ago.  But it rapidly becomes clear that Chapman is actually the least interesting part of the show.

Each episode, in addition to the multiple different plot threads that are taking place in the present, we get to see the backstory of one of the inmates (and guards). What their life was like, and how they ended up in jail. Episode by episode, characters who at first are just bit parts or stereotypes or antagonists or the butts of jokes are fleshed out into real people. And it’s worth pointing out that most of the characters on this show are women of color. The show is unrivaled in its ability to focus on demographics that are usually neglected in TV and movies, and the ensemble cast is amazing.


By telling the stories of such a diverse group of characters, OITNB is also able to touch on a wide range of real world issues and transform them from something abstract into concrete, often emotionally wrenching stories. Here are a few of the issues that I can think of off the top of my head that the show touches upon:

  • Privatization of prisons
  • White privilege
  • Racism
  • Drug addiction
  • LGBT rights
  • Mental health
  • Rape and consent
  • Veterans issues
  • Liberal guilt
  • Police violence
  • Sexism
  • Freedom of religion
  • Employment for former convicts
  • Overly harsh sentencing for nonviolent crimes
  • etc.

What I really love is that while one or another of these issues might take center stage on any given episode, the other ones don’t just go away. This is a show that recognizes that in the real world, these things don’t happen in a vacuum. They are all interconnected, and that makes them that much harder to deal with.

With so many heavy issues, OITNB could easily veer into such a dark place as to become unwatchable. But instead, through possibly the most masterful use of comic relief I have ever seen, it manages to balance its dark and often depressing themes with moments of genuine laugh-out-loud humor. The show is often listed as a comedy, but I would not go that far. It’s primarily a drama. If you’re anything like me, watching this show will leave you emotionally devastated at times. But there is humor there too, in just the right amount.

Especially for someone like me with an interest in writing , OITNB is like a master class. I am seriously considering re-watching some episodes and taking notes. Each episode is crammed with multiple intertwining threads of story, with a host of amazing well-rounded diverse characters, touching on important real-world issues, while also managing to be truly entertaining. And the episodes together form excellent season-long story arcs with dramatic conclusions (and, of course, cliffhangers). I would say its only real weakness is that too many of the guards are pure villains, but even then there are other guards who are well-developed characters so it’s not just that all the men in the show are evil.

If you have not watched Orange is the New Black, I cannot recommend it enough. If you tried a few episodes and stopped, I would urge you to try to get to the second season, where the focus begins to shift away from Piper more. So far every season has been better than the last, and the fourth season was so phenomenally good that I want to grab random people by the shoulders and shake them and make them watch it. Since that would probably not go over very well, this blog post will have to do!


Game Review: Walking Dead: Season 1


You know that feeling when you get to the end of a great novel? Or when the credits are rolling after an amazing season finale for your favorite TV show? Yeah, that’s what I’m feeling right now after finishing The Walking Dead: Season 1.

I’ve been known to complain on this blog about the lack of a decent story in video games. It’s something that always bothers me because so many games could be so much better if they spent just a little effort on the plot instead of filler content so that they can claim there are 100 hours of gameplay. Thankfully, it looks like at least some game designers are realizing this, and Telltale games seems to be leading the way.

Playing The Walking Dead is not like other games. You don’t have much freedom to move around, the controls are frankly pretty clunky, and the graphics are not amazing (but they are cool looking: making the game look like a comic book is a nice shout out to the source material that also allows them to skimp on graphics). The Walking Dead is more like watching an episode of a TV show. The game is even broken into discrete episodes, complete with credits, “previously on…” and teasers for the next episode. But the difference is that it’s a TV show where instead of yelling impotently at the screen when the characters do something dumb, you actually get to play the role of one of the characters (though if you’re like me you’ll still yell at the non-player characters from time to time…).

In The Walking Dead: Season 1, you play Lee, a former history professor who was on his way to jail when the zombie apocalypse occurred (the details of your past are revealed gradually, so I won’t say anything more than that). You end up escaping from the crashed cop car and finding a little girl, Clementine, hiding out in her tree fort to get away from the zombies. You take her under your wing and meet up with an assortment of other interesting characters as you try to survive in the zombie infested world. Unlike most games where killing aliens or terrorists or, you know, zombies, is the main attraction, here the best part of the game is just getting to know the characters. They all are well written, often with their own annoying traits but that only serves to make them feel “real”.

Of course, with realistic characters comes conflict. Disagreements about how best to survive, who is in charge, what to do when someone “turns” into a zombie. In every episode, you are faced with a few tough moral decisions, and these decisions have consequences. More often than not, your choices determine who survives the episode, which can be very difficult because the characters are so well developed. (The game does overuse the “who will you save?” decision a bit.) But it’s not all choices like that. Sometimes it’s the choice between fighting someone or talking to them to calm them down, or what to tell Clementine about whether her parents are alive or not, or whether to trust a newcomer to the group. Oh, and usually you only have a second or two to decide. Of course, the choices don’t alter the fundamental backbone of the story too much: the game’s writers would rapidly end up with a million different diverging stories. But even though the game steers you toward what must happen to advance the story, the fact that you get to make decisions that affect not only the current episode, but all subsequent episodes, means that you get really emotionally invested in the game. The Walking Dead game could easily be set up to just watch like a TV show, and it would be a pretty darn good show on its own. But by allowing you, the player, to make choices and get invested in the characters, it ends up being more powerful than just about any TV show I’ve ever watched. Not to give anything away, but the ending of the final episode had a hell of an emotional impact.

The only negative thing I can say about the game is that one of the episodes was very buggy. I had to restart and re-do a few scenes to be able to get through it. Things like this are especially jarring for a game that otherwise sucks you in so thoroughly.

But other than the bugs, I loved this game. It makes me incredibly happy that there are more “seasons” and that Telltale has quite a few other games out there (apparently they have a Game of Thrones series that I’ll have to check out). I really hope the success of games like this that don’t treat plot and characters as an afterthought inspires other developers to follow suit.


A martian’s review of The Martian (book)


As someone whose day job can be summarized as “zapping rocks on Mars with a laser” and who is interested in writing speculative fiction, I know you will be shocked to learn that I have some opinions about the novel The Martian by Andy Weir. I will now share these opinions with you!

The premise behind this book is as simple as it is compelling: Astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars after his crewmates believe that he has died in a violent sandstorm and are forced to abort the mission. Watney has to survive on the surface of Mars with limited supplies and equipment, until a rescue mission can come get him. It’s basically like Castaway, but on a planet that is extremely hostile to life instead of a tropical island.

The Castaway analogy works, but the best description of The Martian I have heard (and I forget where I heard it, sorry! Edit: someone pointed out that it was this xkcd. Because of course it was xkcd). is that it’s like that scene from Apollo 13 where they have to get the square CO2 filters to work in a round hole, but it goes on for an entire book. If you loved that scene, you will love The Martian. If you don’t remember that scene, then you may not be as excited to read page after page of how Watney figures out how to grow potatoes in Mars soil, or how he manages to create hydrogen by catalytically breaking down rocket fuel.

I know you are now bracing yourself for a few thousand words of pedantic nit-picking from the Mars scientist who wants to correct every little scientific detail in the book, but surprise! I’m not going to do that for two reasons: One, it’s boring. Two, the book was actually pretty good in terms of science. I have two main technical things that I’ll complain about but then I’ll move on to some other non-sciencey things to nit-pick about instead!

The main technical problem in the book is that it vastly overestimates the violence of a martian dust storm. In fact, it repeatedly calls them sand storms. The problem is, Mars has a very thin atmosphere, so while you can get very fast winds, they don’t have much “oomph” behind them. They certainly are not going to dismember a communications antenna and send it hurtling like a javelin into a hapless astronaut. And you’re not going to end up with the drifts of sand that are described when Watney wakes up from his almost-fatal impaling. Sand does move on Mars, but not in huge amounts like that.

I actually heard an interview with Any Weir yesterday, and he brings this up. He says that he actually knew that this was inaccurate, but that since the book is basically a Man vs Nature story, he wanted Nature to land the first blow. And he also pointed out that scientists like me are now coming out of the woodwork explaining to people that the winds on Mars aren’t actually that strong, and so the net result is probably that the public knows much more about the strength of wind on Mars that they would have if he had gotten the science right. So ok, I can live with that.

My other main problem is that Watney has to drive an absurdly long distance across the surface of Mars. It’s just not realistic to have someone drive halfway around the planet. I get that he’s in a giant rover, and so can traverse across obstacles much larger than the robotic rovers could. But he certainly wouldn’t be doing that at 25 kph. And just as importantly, for most of the time he is unable to communicate with NASA or the orbiting satellites, so he doesn’t have high-resolution images to help him plan his route. I can tell you that even with 25 cm per pixel resolution to help us plan where the current robotic rovers drive, we are still surprised by obstacles sometimes.

But really, other than the inciting event and one of the major plot points, I thought the science was pretty good. That sounds snarky, but it’s true: those are both places where the Story takes precedence over being realistic, and that’s ok. For the rest of the book, all the technical details were about right. There were countless places where I put the book down and yelled at Watney “No! Don’t do it that way! This way would be much better!” or other comments along those lines. And then in the next line, he would realize exactly what I was thinking. These were not cases where the technical details were wrong, they were places where Watney was being deliberately slow so that typical readers can follow along with him as he figures things out.

In reality, upon being stranded, an astronaut would probably sit down and figure out in a few hours and a few pages of calculations what it takes Watney weeks, and lots of trial and error, to sort out. But that would be awfully boring to read, and amazingly, Watney’s struggles are not! To me that is the great accomplishment of this book: it manages to make long, detailed descriptions of technical problem solving not only palatable, but actually engrossing. This book is a page turner!

The book is so readable because of Mark Watney’s voice. His personality is finely-honed to be extremely charismatic, likeable, funny, and relatable. The Martian is a spectacular example of the power of voice to make a piece of fiction readable and exciting. If Watney didn’t have a compelling voice, nobody would be able to tolerate the long passages of technical details. At times, I found the degree to which Weir tries to make Watney a relatable everyman a bit annoying. In particular, whenever Watney is making cracks about how nerdy those guys at NASA are. DUDE. You are a mechanical engineer slash botanist astronaut on Mars. I’m pret-ty sure that qualifies you as one of those nerds at NASA!

This spilled over into some of the scenes on Earth as well. In order to make the scenes on Earth understandable to a normal audience, everything had to be explained in great detail. So you end up with lots of scenes where one character has to come across as clueless so that the other character can explain things to them (and to the reader). This is not how normal conversations between people at mission control would go. Realistic conversations would be nearly incomprehensible to someone who is not an expert, thanks to all the shorthand. People wouldn’t be explaining things in great detail, instead other people would be cutting them off mid-thought, already seeing where they are going and jumping to the next logical conclusion. Believe me, when I first got to participate in rover planning meetings as a baby graduate student, everything was just a confusing jumble of acronyms and jargon. Heck, sometimes it still is!

So, I totally understand why all the Earth scenes had to be the way they are so that readers can follow them, but I still found it a bit annoying. (In fiction there’s a term for conversations between two characters where one of them explains something to the other, when both of them already know it. It’s called the “As you know…” trope.)

Anyway, on to my biggest complaint about this book. You will notice that up above I said that Watney’s voice was extremely compelling. I was careful to say “voice” and not “character” because in my opinion Watney is an extremely poorly-developed character. I know, I know, this is going to be an unpopular opinion. But hear me out. Over the course of an entire novel, what do we learn about Watney? He’s from Chicago, he likes to crack jokes, he hates disco. We get a few mentions of his parents. We learn what his areas of expertise are (the better to buy into his ability to come up with MacGyver style hacks). But even though it is abundantly obvious that Watney has TONS of free time as he sits around on Mars, we never see any depth to his character. We’re supposed to believe that he just sits around and watches bad 70s TV in all his copious free time and doesn’t do things like, say, reminisce about all the people and things he misses on Earth. He apparently has no friends, no significant others, no pets. He barely even thinks about his parents. Where are the emotional scenes where he is missing the ability to step outside and feel the breeze on his skin, the warm sun on his face? Where are the dark moments where he almost gives up hope? Why doesn’t he seem to be fazed by more than a year of absolute isolation? Nope, hardly any of that. He just watches TV and makes bad jokes during all his free time.

I’ll tell you my theory: the author was afraid that getting too negative would bum people out and make them stop reading. So instead we get a protagonist who is so freakishly optimistic and cheery that it removes the emotional core of the story. There are lots of cliche sayings about not being able to appreciate the good without the bad and the like, but I think they really do apply here. As it is right now, The Martian is a pretty good book. If Weir had been willing to dig a little deeper and allow his character to explore some of the actual emotions that a person would go through during years of solitary confinement on a hostile alien planet, it would be a great book.

But all my nitpicks and complaints aside, I should make it clear that I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I highly recommend it. Is it great literature? No. But it is awesome science fiction, with a heaping dose of accurate scientific fact. It’s an exciting page-turner, and it is likely going to do more to inspire people to be interested in space exploration and teach people about Mars than NASA could ever dream to do with all of its public outreach and press releases. I have no doubt that there are kids in high school right now who will be inspired by this book (and/or the movie) to go on to become engineers and scientists. And for that, I’m willing to overlook some minor flaws and get swept up in a good story with everyone else.



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