Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Aliens say God could exist

According to BBC News, Father Gabriel Funes, the official Vatican astronomer, declared in a recent article that alien life could exist in outer space, and that belief in extraterrestrial life did not contradict belief in God or the teachings of the church.

Catholic sci-fi fans the world over breathed a collective sigh of relief.

In response, Gok Grabbclrttttk of the Mu Arae star system and president of the Fomalhaut League of Intelligent Races, said that God could exist, and the belief in God did not violate any rules he knew of. “However,” he added, “It does seem kind of silly.”

Father Funes also said in his article that some aliens could be free from original sin. President Grabbclrttttk snorted at this statement, saying, “He’s not talking about any aliens I know.”

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A man breathes into a saxophone

Yesterday, while I walked to my favorite coffee shop in this little upstate NY town, it began to drizzle. As I passed in front of the computer repair place, a skinny guy with white hair and a white beard, and holding a beat-up saxophone, stepped out. He stood in the shelter of the recessed door and started to play. It sounded great - smooth and mellow. When I reached the coffee shop a few doors down, instead of going right in, I stood under the awning, looked out at the increasing rain, and listened to the music a while.
I saw the guy the next day and complimented him on his playing, but it turned out that not everyone appreciated it. He had been playing one door down from a little diner, and apparently the owner came out and asked him to stop. "I don't want to hear your saxophone in my diner," she said. "I don't want to smell your meatloaf on the sidewalk," he shot back. So, she called the cops. Oh, well. At least I got to hear it.
While I was in the rain listening to the music, I suddenly felt like I was in a movie. An old detective movie, of course. This sensation is common now, but just think, none of the ancient Greeks felt like they were in a movie, ever.
Since I don't have any appropriate pictures, I leave you with the following album cover and the following question: Did they give much thought to the alignment of the bass sax mouthpiece?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


I read recently in Variety that Tom Cruise and United Artists have hired Ronald Moore (Battlestar Galactica!) to create a big-screen sci-fi trilogy for Cruise. Three big-screen sci-fi movies by Ron Moore? Yay! Starring Tom Cruise? Um....

This news got me thinking about Tom Cruise movies, which alone make up the following category: Movies I Like Starring Actors I Don't. It's nothing personal - I just don't like Cruise - his acting, his voice, his teeth, etc. But, man, he's been in a lot of good movies, a few of them just outstanding. He's starred in a some solid sci-fi, too, like Vanilla Sky, Minority Report, and War of the Worlds. In the top-notch movie Magnolia, he plays a slimy misogynist bastard, and he is just great at that role, but he usually plays a guy you're supposed to like, and I just don't. (Come to think of it, he was a believable bastard in Collateral, too.)

It seems to me that Cruise movies are good in spite of him, not because of him. But he keeps getting the parts, so I'll keep watching. It's kind of like following a pig to the truffles.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Melting, melting

Two of my arteest friends blogged this week about the spring thaw, which we are finally enjoying here in upstate NY. I'm just going to pass these on:
Dave Huth made a video called Long Time Coming (click on the picture on the bottom half of the page on Huth's page), and Nicole Maynard painted a painting called Thaw. You should check these out, if you haven't already.

Flowers courtesy of the universe and my back yard

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Mistah Crushah!

I while ago I posted about a childhood memory of taping Star Trek with a cassette recorder. I was inspired to write that down after reading some good essays by Wil Wheaton in his new book The Happiest Days of Our Lives. These are entertaining and sometimes poignant stories about growing up a geek and being a grown-up geek. The best thing about these stories is that they are generally hopeful and happy, even when he relates sad memories. Happiest Days is currently available only through Wheaton's blog. It's a rather slim volume for the $20 price, but I liked it a lot. You can experience his writing with little investment, though, by checking out Dancing Barefoot or Just a Geek, both available for peanuts on AbeBooks. Of course, you can also find his essays in a library or on his blog for zero dollars and zero cents.
The Sci-Fi Pie author as a young geek
For those of you who don't know, Wil Wheaton got famous as the wiz-kid Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Since then, he's been writing books and blogs, acting in a few movies/TV shows, playing Celebrity Poker, and living life with his family like the rest of us.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

More Dreams with Sharp Teeth

I went to NYC to see the New York premier of Dreams with Sharp Teeth, a film about Harlan Ellison, which I’ve already yapped about here and below. I’m not going to bore you with a review or preview or whatever. If anything I've already said about the movie interests you, see it when you get the chance. You won’t be disappointed.

At one point in the movie, Ellison is shown signing a script for a fan, who then says, “Awesome!” Ellison rebukes him, telling him that earthquakes and Michelangelo are awesome, not his signature. Wrong. I’d say the signed script is pretty awesome. The movie Dreams with Sharp Teeth: Awesome. The fact that writers Peter David, Josh Olson, and Norman Spinrad, among others, were in the audience: Awesomer. The on-stage, hour-long chat between director Erik Nelson and Harlan Ellison himself: AWESOMEST.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Tanks Hoots

Thanks to Dave Huth, graphic artist and shaper of many media, for making me a nice header for my blog! His vblog movies are a real treat - funny, interesting, meaningful, and other sorts of good.

I’m geeking out. I discovered that Dreams with Sharp Teeth, a movie about Harlan Ellison that I mentioned a few posts ago, is premiering in NYC, and Ellison will be there. The movie’s being presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center on Tuesday, April 8th at 7pm. I plan on traveling about 7 hours to see the movie and coming back the next day.

Now, I realize that this is a fairly idiotic thing to do. It’s made more sensible, though, by the fact that my nice friends Rob and Kathy are going to the movie with me and putting me up afterwards. I look forward to seeing them, and their hospitality saves me many monies. I'll also give myself a few hours to kick around the city. These considerations bring the endeavor into the realm of “almost normal,” I think. Thanks, guys, and see you in a couple days!

Monday, March 31, 2008

Common Interests

This tasty morsel just in from my Google news alerts: the website LesbiaNation has published their top-ten women of sci-fi list, the result of a reader survey. (Note: my news alert search terms are “science fiction” and “sci-fi,” not “lesbians.” Not that there’d be anything wrong with that…). The article starts, “Lesbians and strong sci-fi women go hand-in-hand….” I never thought about it that way, but now that I do, I like thinking about it.

Anyway, I am totally down with this list, because the winning actors play characters who are intelligent and competent, as well as smoking hot. For a geek, hotness, by definition, includes smarts and competence. Bimbos need not apply. After all, why is Dr. Crusher hotter than Deanna Troi? Because Crusher can take over the ship without batting an eyelash, while Troi tries it once and crashes the boat.

Number ten is Natalie Portman. You’ll have to click on over for the rest: LesbiaNation Top Ten Women of Sci-Fi

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Geek Genes

A few weeks ago I was taking the bus into Rochester, watching an episode of Stargate on my iPod, when I had a flashback to my childhood. When I was six or seven, I had one of those ubiquitous cassette tape recorders – the ones about the width and length of a shoebox and half as high. I often used it to record Star Trek (the original), which I watched in syndication almost every day. I’d set the recorder on top of the TV, and then wrap the mic cord once or twice around the channel knob so the mic dangled in front of the speaker. I recorded many episodes like this, jumping up to turn off the recorder during commercials. Later at night, when I was supposed to be asleep, I would lie in the dark and listen to the show using one of those little white mono earphones. I was geek before I knew what geek was.

A couple years ago I was team-teaching a programming class an hour and a half from home, and staying at a friend’s house one or two nights during the week. I had episodes of Trek with me on my laptop, and I’d watch them right before I went to sleep. I didn’t consciously think of it at the time, but I missed my wife and kiddies, and these shows were comforting. It seems kind of pathetic to have an emotional connection to a TV show, like I’m a baby rhesus monkey clinging to a wire mommy. But these are early memories of good times in the comfort of home. Even if I was hiding behind the couch, afraid that Kirk would not escape the doomsday machine, it's still a good memory. I suppose everyone my age has a show or two like this. For some it’s Little House on the Prairie, or Happy Days, or Charlie’s Angels. I have early memories of Charlie’s Angels, too, but they are not really warm and fuzzy. They’re…other adjectives.

We’ve been watching the old Treks with our kids. It’s fun and surprisingly educational for them—there’s a lot that needs explaining. It makes me wonder how much I understood when I first watched. Anyway, I get a real charge when my kids ask to watch a specific episode by name. Yeah, brother!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Robot Schmobot

Yesterday, several news sites reported that a man was shot by a robot. Headlines like this, conjuring images of Cylon toasters mowing down Colonial civilians, will certainly get a few readers. The sad truth, though, is that an old man killed himself.

Apparently, an 81 year-old man in Australia was distraught because his family was pressuring him to move into a nursing home. He decided to kill himself instead. He found plans on the Internet for a machine that could pull the trigger of a handgun remotely. He built the machine, set it up in his driveway, and killed himself with it.

I haven’t seen this machine, but calling it a robot is cheerless sensationalism, given that it was probably made from a power drill and a vice. Leave it to Fox News, though, to go over the top. I’m not making this up. This is their headline:

Australian Man Gunned Down
in Driveway by Killer Robot

Do these idiots really want to parody themselves? If Fox News were on the Comedy Channel, along with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, they would be pretty funny. But they're not, and they are always making up slogans claiming impartiality. Their latest is this: We Report. You Decide. OKI’ve decided. I’ve decided that Fox News is a bunch of assholes.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Dreams with Sharp Teeth

I love Harlan Ellison’s stories, and I recently learned of a movie about him, called Dreams with Sharp Teeth, which premiered at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film and music fest last week. Ellison is an outstanding and prolific writer of short stories, longer fiction, TV scripts, and more. Most of his work would be classified as speculative fiction or science fiction. He eschews the label of science-fiction writer, though, for the same reason Vonnegut did when he wrote this classic line years after some early success: "I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled 'science fiction' ever since, and I would like out, particularly because so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal."
Like Vonnegut, Ellison wants his work to be considered seriously, and on the same level as any published fiction, and it should be.
The movie shows Ellison giving a tour of his eccentric house to Robin Williams. It has interviews with Dan Simmons, Neil Gaiman, and Peter David, among others. They all say Ellison is great, and he is. He’s also famously abrasive and grumpy. He rants a lot. But he’s a writer’s writer, and a staunch supporter of artists' rights in any media. The trailer for the movie shows a lot of rants, but reviews have it that there’s more to it than that.
If you are at work or with the kiddies, be warned: the following clip contains BAD WORDS.

It would probably be hard to live with a person who rants a lot, but they’re fun to watch for a while. Most of us won’t get to see this till summer, and I can’t wait.

P.S. While looking for that Vonnegut quote, I found this nifty article:
15 Things Kurt Vonnegut Said Better Than Anyone Else

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Citizen TR-20216691 Reporting

I got my new passport in the mail. I’m pretty excited because I’m planning a trip to the UK in the fall. I also got back my old passport, which I had to submit as proof of ID. It happens that my old passport is almost exactly 20 years older than my new one. I held the pictures side by side and showed them to my wife. “Depressing,” I said. But it wasn’t really depressing, just interesting. Twenty years – POOF.

The new passport has the following warning on the last page:

This document contains sensitive
For best performance,
do not bend, perforate, or expose
to extreme temperatures.

For best performance? What exactly is it going to DO? They could have left off that phrase, and the imperative would have followed perfectly from the first sentence. More interesting than writing by committee, though, is that sensitive electronics part.

That little rectangular symbol means it's an "electronic" passport. Passports now contain your personal data encrypted on a chip. The chip is accessed using short-range radio wavesthe same tech that’s common in credit cards, car keys, security fobs, and lots more. According to the State Department web site, the passport has a shielded cover, so it has to be opened and passed directly over a scanner to be read. I’m fine with this. It makes sense and seems secure enough.

But then there’s the passport card. This is offered as a cheaper and more convenient alternative for travelers who frequently go to and from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. It’s good only for land or sea travelyou can’t use it to fly. The card is wallet sized, and is billed as more convenient because it’s smaller andget thisthe data can be read at a distance. If you have a passport card in your wallet, the boarder guard will know who you are before you pull up to the gate. Really.

The government says not to worry, though – it’s secure because there’s no personal data on the card – just a number that they can link to your records in a “secure government databases.”

Let’s see, why doesn’t that make me feel better…Oh! I know; because THE GOVERNMENT IS WHO I’M AFRAID OF. If the passport card catches on as a national ID card (or is mandated), is there any doubt that the government will put readers in every government building, highway toll booth, bank, hospital, and anywhere else they can get away with? I don’t think I'm being too paranoid here. I mean, I would do it if I were them. It would be very handy in all sorts of situations.

But it is scary, in a delightfully sci-fi dystopia way. I refuse to get a passport card. I'm holding out for the really convenient subcutaneous passport implant.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Gedo Senki

A few years ago the Sci-fi channel produced a film version of A Wizard of Earthsea. The production utterly and completely sucked. I mean, really. Such good material, and they totally blew it. Anyway, I recently searched IMDB to see if there were any other Earthsea movies out there. I saw that there is an animated Tales from Earthsea, directed by Guro Mayazaki, son of Hayao Mayazaki, the great director responsible for Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Gedo Senki came out in 2006, but I hadn’t heard about it. It’s a beautiful production. The animation backgrounds are like paintings, and the music is interesting dramatic. Even the ambient sound, something you might not normally notice in an animated movie, is textured and detailed. This is Guro's first directorship. Maybe it's not as good as his father's work, but it's a little unfair to compare.

The movie isn’t taken from the original Earthsea trilogy, but from a later collection of stories. If you haven’t read the Earthsea books, by Ursula LeGuin, you should. They’re really worth the time. Almost 30 years before the first Harry Potter, there was Ged from the island of Gont. Ill-treated as a child, he discovered he had magic powers, and was sent for a school for wizards to develop his skill and learn to use it responsibly. The trilogy is short. The three books are under 200 pages each. LeGuin also wrote later books, Tehanu, The Other Wind, and Tales from Earthsea. These are also good, but a little darker and more grown-up. I would gladly have my kids (7, 9, and 11) read the trilogy, but I think I’d want them to wait on Tehanu.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

I, Spotbot

I read two robot-related news stories on Reuters this morning, and I’m not sure which is more disturbing.
  • Story onescary robots. Robotics/AI expert Noel Sharkey, among others, has warned that GPS-guided robots are already cheap and easy to build, and it’s just a matter of time before terrorists use them to launch remote attacks. The robot tech is out there, easy to get and easy to copy. Toy plane + GPS device + grenade = …You get the [ugly] picture.
  • Story twocute robots. A study released this month says that elderly in nursing homes were equally comforted by a trained therapy dog and a robotic dog. That’s right. "They worked almost equally well in terms of alleviating loneliness and causing residents to form attachments.”
OK, I have a question: Why did they do that experiment?

Are they looking into cost-cutting? Saving on kibble? Who was sitting around one day and suddenly thought, Hey, I wonder if those old folks would be just as happy with a robot dog? I realize the story addresses those questions, sort of, but still...

What solution would the heuristics of Electronic Jesus yield?

One of my favorite Douglas Adams creations is the Electric Monk, introduced in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Just like other labor-saving devices that took over tedious tasks for us, “Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.”

Will aging robots be just as happy with live dogs?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Lunch in the Zone

I hate to advertise for big media, but I can't help it this time. I must tell my geek friends: The CBS Web site is streaming, for free, all of the original Star Trek, two seasons of The Twilight Zone, MacGyver, and a few other old shows. There are a couple ads during each show, but they're short (like 15 seconds). The videos play in a 640 x 480 Flash window - pretty much what you get on a DVD. It'd be nice to play them full screen, but I can't; maybe a full version of Flash would do it.

Boy, this is really gonna help me get work done during the day!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

That Aborigine Guy

I am absent-minded. Abstracted, distracted, and altogether harebrained. Here’s an example from this morning (I never have to look far for an example). I was leaving the grocery store when my cell phone rang. It was my daughter asking when I would pick her up from her friend’s house. “I’m on my way,” I said, “I’ll be there in two minutes, so be ready.” Five minutes later, after I pulled into my own driveway and shut off the car, I realized that I forgot my daughter. I had driven right by the friend’s house, which is a half-mile from the store. This is my life.

This morning, though, I had a good excuse. I was thinking about Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, which my wife and I watched last night. The movie was released in 1977. It’s about a lawyer defending a group of Aborigines in a murder trial. But this is not "Law & Order Down Under." The trial is almost peripheral. The lawyer, played by Richard Chamberlain, is having bad dreams. Apocalyptic dreams. And maybe prophetic dreams. The movie is spooky. It's not a horror movie; there’s no blood, and no overt violence, just some violent weather. It is haunting, though, and thoughtful. Watch it and see if you don’t forget a few things the next day.

The main Aborigine character is played by David Gulpilil, better know as That Aborigine Guy. He has a great presence, which has only gotten better with age. He’s been in Crocodile Dundee, Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Tracker, and other movies and TV shows.

Peter Weir is not the most prolific director. Since The Last Wave, he’s written and directed ten movies. I’ve seen at least seven of them, and they’re all good (Mosquito Coast, Dead Poet's Society, and The Truman Show to name three). I was quite excited when I read a while back that he was attached as the director of an upcoming production of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, my favorite Gibson novel. Weir directing Pattern Recognition is a fantasy combo. Unfortunately, it might only be fantasy. I’ve since read conflicting reports as to whether Weir is still on the project. Here’s hoping!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Cap’n Bridger in Davey Jones’ Locker

Roy “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” Scheider died last week of multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, according to what I’ve read. He was 75. He was best known for his role in Jaws, but in my indexed-to-sci-fi life, he was Captain Bridger of seaQuest DSV (1993-96). You know, I just noticed how that title prefigured words-squished-together-with-mixed-caps which is so common now.

SeaQuest was sort of a Star Trek of the Sea. After all, the ocean is the final frontier here on Earth, and there is still a lot we don’t know about it. I have often thought that some day, when I have enough disposable income, I’ll take up diving, largely because it’s the closest I’m likely to come to the mysterious unknown of outer space. Anyway, seaQuest had a really solid first season. It was interesting and sciencey, but it got whacky in the second season and was cancelled after the third.

Scheider was a good actor, and could play the commanding yet and likable character with ease, it seemed. It makes you wonder why he wasn’t a bigger star, but he ended up more of a character actor in the end. Most of the main actors on seaQuest have maintained solid TV careers, including the entertaining Ted Raimi (brother of Sam, Joxer on Xena, Hoffman on the Spiderman movies). Teen-aged heartthrob Jonathon Brandis, who played the smart kid role, hung himself in 2005.

Rest in peace, Roy.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Jumper Goes Splat

Despite Hayden Christensen, I was going to take a risk and see Jumper tonight, because I like big-budget sci-fi and I like Sammy Jackson. But then I read Ebert’s review. And then checked Rotten Tomatoes. Ugh. It’s not easy to get 15% on Rotten Tomatoes – a movie has to suck and blow at the same time to get less than thirty or forty percent. For pete's sake, any big studio film can count on at least ten percent from what Ebert calls “quote whores” – reviewers who praise films so studios can use their quotes for promotion. Here’s an example from a positive “review” of Jumper: …some of the most jaw-dropping stunts shot in some of the most amazing locations on earth. See? Whore.

I am nonplussed by Hayden Christensen’s success. With all the young actors struggling for roles in cutthroat Hollywood, how is it that he got in? I’m not trying to be funny here – I just don’t get it. If he were cast in a David Mamet film, and instructed to deliver his lines with no expression or emotion, he would still really suck, which means can’t even not act well. He made me cringe in Star Wars. Who keeps giving him parts, and why?

OK - enough griping! On a more positive note, I’d like to mention the great "jumper" story of sci-fi: The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester (1956). Like the Jumper characters, Charles Fort Jaunte discovers his talent accidentally. Trapped in a deadly laboratory fire, he suddenly finds himself 20 feet away from the blaze, next to the fire extinguisher. He and others develop this newfound skill, and pretty soon just about everyone learns to “jaunte” to any place on earth, provided they’ve been there once and can picture the place. The main protagonist of Stars is Gully Foyle, who is just a fantastic character. This is one of my favorite sci-fi books ever. It’s easily on my top-ten list, and is generally considered to be one of the best sci-fi novels. In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, I’m going to read it again.

They’ve never made a movie of The Stars My Destination, though I’ve read that there were aborted attempts. In 2006, Universal bought screen rights to the book, but I don’t know if they've moved on it. Gully Foyle is a complex and morally ambiguous character, and if Hollywood makes this book into a movie, I suspect that they’ll dumb it down.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Snow Worms and Robots

Today the wind is furiously whipping the snow around and the temperature should be measured in Kelvin, and my kids (7, 9, and 11) got it in their minds to get in their sleeping bags and crawl around the back yard like giant blue snow worms. This might seem like bizarre behavior on their part, and letting them do so might seem like bizarre behavior on mine. The thing is, besides the fact that they were relatively safe and warm, I really understood the compulsion. [Note to Child Protective Services: They were safe and warm at all times.]

Kids have a heightened sense of that state of mind we call “cozy.” To feel cozy, you must not only be safe and comfortable, but peril, or at least discomfort, must be nearby to provide a contrast. A cabin with a crackling fire is coziest when a howling wind drives cold rain against the window panes. So, I watched them inch and roll around in the squeaky-cold snow, and even glom up the slide ladder and slip down the other side. Too bad there’s not an extra sleeping bag…

The Leslie and Robby Show

Today is Leslie Nielson’s birthday – he’s 82. I first saw him in his hilarious Naked Gun/Airplane roles, as a sophomoric and oblivious nitwit, a part that can be really funny only if the actor has some natural gravitas.

Back near the beginning of his long career, Nielson starred as the (not funny) Commander Adams in Forbidden Planet (1956), a movie that makes almost everyone’s list of top sci-fi movies. This and The Day the Earth Stood Still are 1950’s sci-fi in a nutshell, and both are still entertaining and thought-provoking.

Forbidden Planet also featured the first appearance of Robby the Robot, a sophisticated prop used so often that he (rightfully) has his own actor page on IMDB. After Forbidden Planet, Robby (occupied by various actors) made guest appearances on a couple dozen TV shows, including The Twilight Zone, Lost in Space, Wonder Woman, and even Mork and Mindy.

Robby vs. The Robot from Lost in Space: Danger Will Robinson is right, fool.

Links of Interest


Saturday, February 9, 2008

Nylon strings, leather pants

I saw Sharon Isbin play tonight with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Where do people get off being that talented and that good-looking at the same time? If looks and talent are zero-sum, some of us are getting seriously ripped off here. In addition, she was wearing leather pants.

What does this have to do with sci-fi? Well, for one thing, Darth Vader wore leather pants, too. I wonder if he could play guitar, with the force or otherwise.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Get Your Ape On

Friday (February 8) is the 40th anniversary of the first public screening of Planet of the Apes, in New York City. (The rest of the U.S. saw it on April 3rd.) What better way to celebrate than to get some beer and pretzels and settle in with Charelton Heston and his furry friends? This movie is fantastic. Sure, there are some cheesy 60’s moments, but it really holds up, overall. The music alone is just amazing. Gerry Goldsmith’s percussive, atonal score, replete with monkey barks, was cutting edge at the time, and it’s still dramatic and stirring.
So stick it in your queue, my friends.

For more simian fun, read the original novel by Pierre Boulle. He published Planet of the Apes (La Planète des Singes) in 1963, but he’s better known for writing Bridge on the River Kwai (1966), which was, of course, made into one of the best movies ever.

The book’s ending has a surprising twist or two, but it’s not the same as the famous goddamn-you-all-to-hell-beach-pounding scene of the movie. I won’t say any more about that, because I don’t want to give it away. I will say that this is a quick and interesting read. It’s only about 200 pages, and is told in first person, as the found diary of Ulysse Mérou (George Taylor in the movie). The book is more involved and more cerebral than the movie – it’s an adventure, but it’s also a thought experiment about what it might be like to be in Mérou's position. For instance, in the book, the apes don’t speak English (or French), so the protagonist has to learn their language before he can communicate. To reveal his intelligence, he snatches away Zira’s notebook, but instead of writing “My name is Taylor,” he draws a diagram representing the Pythagorean Theorem.

This book has been reprinted lots. I have the 2000 Cinema Classics edition printed by Gramercy Press – it’s a nice hardcover that can be found for cheap in used book stores and online.

Note: Be sure you don’t pick up the more recent novelization of the 2001 movie. That is not the original story.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Pre-Trek Shatneralia

Here are a couple pre-Trek Shatner movies that you really should see. You don’t need to be a Shatner fan to like these gems – they are both remarkable movies in their own right.

The Intruder, 1963
Shatner plays Adam Cramer, a slick young racist who goes to a southern American town to whip up unrest against mandated desegregation of public schools. Shatner does a disturbingly good job playing a conniving and hateful character. The film was directed by Roger Corman, who has directed and produced literally hundreds of movies and TV shows. Corman is generally know for low-budget, “B” projects, and he’s usually not taken very seriously. The Intruder is serious. Serious enough that many American movie houses to refused to play the movie because the topic was too hot. It did play in Europe and was well-received and won awards. This is not a hammy, sentimental movie – it’s honest and sobering. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll be surprised.

Incubus, 1965
Right before Star Trek, Shatner starred in Incubus. This horror movie was a pet project of Leslie Stevens, who wrote episodes of The Outer Limits, Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century, and a lot more. It is apparently the only movie filmed entirely in Esperanto. It is fascinating. It’s worth watching just to see Shatner speaking Esperanto. Just to hear an hour and a half of Esperanto. Just to say you saw a movie in Esperanto starring Shatner. The original film was accidentally destroyed, and the only known copy was found in Paris, in the Cinémathèque Française. Whew! The restored DVD has some interesting interviews and commentary. Weird, spooky, interesting.

Trivia: Incubus is playing on a TV in a scene of Blade: Trinity.

While you’re at it, go for the hat trick and see Judgment at Nuremburg, 1961. It’s a great movie, and Shatner’s good in it, although his part is relatively small.

News Flash: Encyclopedia Shatnerica Update Due Out This Summer

Speaking of Shatneralia, I was thrilled to learn that Robert Schnakenberg’s Encyclopedia Shatnerica is finally being updated. I was searching the title on Amazon to see how many used copes were out there, when I saw that a new edition is due out in June. It’s about time! The first and only edition was published in 1998, and we all know that Bill has not been idle since then. This book is a treat and a must have for Shatner fans.

For those of you who are suspicious types like I am, I wrote to Sir Schnakenberg to confirm that this was indeed an updated edition, not just a reprint. He replied, "It is an updated and revised edition. New text, new photos, all-new design." Outstanding.

Also for geeks: Last year Robert publish a book of Sci-Fi Baby Names. If either of our two sons had been a girls, we would have used the name Miriam, ostensibly because both my wife and I think it's a beautiful name, but secretly I wanted to call her Miri, after the girl in the original Trek episode by the same name.

Links of Interest:

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Flag of Gilead

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, is set in a near future where radical right-wing Christians have taken over part of the US and set up their own theocratic state, which they call Gilead. They guard the borders, take rights away from women, and put gays and Jews in work camps. Most people have become infertile, and the Handmaids are fertile women who are used to bear children for elite couples who can't. I don’t remember if the book describes the flag of Gilead, but here’s a good candidate:

This is hanging for real over a Christian bookstore in my town. It has the stripes of the American flag, but the blue field holds only a white fish – the ichthus Christian symbol. I find it a little disturbing.

Sci-fi fans might have missed Atwood’s work of speculative fiction, since her name is not the first that comes to mind when you think of sci-fi authors. It was written in 1985, but it is as pertinent as ever. It’s a good yarn with a lot of interesting ideas.

There is a 1990 movie version of this book, which I have not seen. Despite having some big-name actors like Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall, this movie has gotten poor reviews.

IMDB: The Handmaid's Tale

Ebert's Review of the movie

Friday, February 1, 2008


I was haunted by the idea that I remembered her wrong, and somehow I was wrong about everything.

This line of Kelvin’s, and Rheya’s lines below, are the crux of the Soderbergh’s 2002 Solaris, starring George Clooney and Natascha McElhone. The movie is about identity, and makes us think about how well we know those around us. I can do no better than quote Ebert’s review to elaborate this point:

...Kelvin gets back not his dead wife, but a being who incorporates all he knows about his dead wife, and nothing else, and starts over from there. She has no secrets because he did not know her secrets. If she is suicidal, it is because he thought she was. The deep irony here is that all of our relationships in the real world are exactly like that, even without the benefit of Solaris. We do not know the actual other person. What we know is the sum of everything we think we know about them. Even empathy is perhaps of no use; we think it helps us understand how other people feel, but maybe it only tells us how we would feel, if we were them.

And there’s the other side of that coin: that is, are we more who we think we are, or who other people think we are? The individualist in me reacts immediately that I obviously know myself better than other people know me. After all, I’m inside my own head, and no one else is. No one can tell me who I am, dammit.

But, in some cases, how other people see us is how we are. If everyone thinks I’m bald, but I refuse to accept it, I’m still bald. I am, by the way, and I like it.

This is a trivial example of a more profound idea: we need to pay some attention to what other people – especially our loved ones – tell us about ourselves, because they might be right. Maybe you think you are a whimsical joker, but your coworkers think you’re rather bitter and sarcastic. Maybe your dry humor is coming across as dull cynicism. Maybe you like being precise, but your spouse thinks you’re nit-picky. If you want your loved ones and friends to know who you are, check every now and then that what they think of you matches what you think of you.

Tarkovski’s 3-hour, 1972 Solyaris is fantastic, but a little tiring in a Russian-movie kind of way. The original book, by Stanislaw Lem, is a good read, but gets bogged down at times in pseudo-scientific explanations. Don’t get me wrong; I like them all, but Soderbergh’s is my favorite rendering – it seems the distilled essence of the story. The film is absorbing and the soundtrack hypnotic. I have no idea why this movie isn’t generally rated higher. I suspect that many of its viewers are unsuspecting dummies looking for a space blaster movie, and are peeved at getting an evenly paced, thoughtful movie instead.

Trivia: I learned from William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (good book!) that Tarkovski filmed a Solyaris scene in the Roppongi district of Tokyo because the highway system looked so futuristic (in 1972). The cars in this scene are supposed to be driving themselves. If you look carefully, you can see Japanese highway signs. Incredibly, someone has posted the whole 4-minute highway scene on youtube. Sometimes I just love the Internet.

IMDB: Solaris, Solyaris
Amazon: Solaris – book and soundtrack
Ebert’s reviews of the 1972 Solaris and the 2002 Solaris

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Apple and Orange Pie: I Am Legend

When I compare the book and movie versions of the same story, I'm not interested in suggesting which is "better." That's comparing apples and oranges, and the book usually wins on that count. I'm interested in comparing how ideas are treated and what conclusions result.

In the newest movie version of the 1954 novel, I Am Legend, Will Smith’s character becomes legend because he saves humanity. His work and sacrifice results in a vaccine that will allow the small colony of uninfected humans to repopulate the world. They will remember Neville: he will become a legend.

The meaning of legend in the original story is quite different.

In the book, as in the Charleton Heston movie, Omega Man, at least some of the infected are not mindless zombies (those are outstanding zombies in the new movie, BTW). In the book, the infected essentially become vampires, and a certain segment of them learn to live with the disease with the help of drugs. They can come out during the day a little, but they’re mostly nocturnal. These “coping” infected start to build civilization again. They are the new humans; they are what’s “normal” now. And they are terrified of Neville. He has not learned that there are relatively normal people living with the disease, and he spends part of every day simply hunting and killing the infected during their daytime sleep. In the end, they catch him and execute him. Neville is dead, but he’s assured status as legend in the new society, not as a hero, but as a boogie man, just as vampires are legend in our society.

It’s great fun to read the original story and then watch all three movies:
The book has been recently reprinted, and the movies areadily available via Netflix.