Category Archives: science fiction

Belated Thursday Doors: Dutch Whimsy

Driving to Belgium from Germany, one has to pass through the Netherlands. We didn’t have time to stop much, but we did need to: 1. eat, and 2. find geocaches.

For Thursday doors, just under the wire here on Saturday, I offer these bathroom doors at a McDonald’s in “De Loop” in Echt. De Loop is a business park on the A2 motorway. The McDonalds in Europe are surprisingly nice, and convenient, although no one admits to eating there. If you’re in Europe you’re supposed to sample local cuisine–which we did, but we were also in a bit of a hurry to get where we were going. So Mickey D’s it was.

Rather than the standard blue and white signs, there was what looked like hand-drawn art on the rest room doors:

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On that day we also stopped in a park to find some geocaches for the day. They were just ordinary containers, so nothing in particular to blog about.

But in this same park in Roermond there was an art installation with a series of objects up on poles. Most of them had round disks with different sized and shaped appendages. Some of them looked more human than others. I couldn’t figure out what they were supposed to represent, and a Google image search I did later didn’t help. So I feel free to add my own interpretation.

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Not a door, but this particular flying disk on a stick up in the trees really looks like the Starship Enterprise to me.

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Photo credit: Tobias Richter (https://trekmovie.com/2009/02/23/first-look-at-tobias-richters-uss-enterprise-wallpapers/)

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in on the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post and then sharing it, between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time), on the linky list at Norm 2.0’s blog

ThroughTheGate

Follow my European trip with this and previous posts:

October 18, 2018: Nordrhein-Westfalen

October 11, 2018: Landschaftspark

September 21, 2018: Pattensen

September 6, 2018: Birdhouse Cache

August 30, 2018: Achtung, Baby!

August 16, 2018: Ku’Damm

August 9, 2018: Berliner Dom

July 20, 2018: Berlin Walk

June 13, 2018: Thursday “Tors”: Brandenburg

June 7, 2018: Germany

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Book Review: Night of the Living Trekkies by Kevin David Anderson

Night of the Living TrekkiesNight of the Living Trekkies by Kevin David Anderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I went into this book with low expectations. It was on my kindle, I had finished my previous book, and I was out of wifi range on a boat so I was unable to download anything else. I thought, I’ll give it a chance for a few chapters. And after a few chapters I was hooked.

I would probably be best described as a Trekkie alumna. I loved Star Trek in my teens. I read all the novelizations of the original series, had seen all the episodes several times, went to a convention, owned a real tribble, and for a while could probably have done pretty well in a trivia contest. But that was before the post-“Voyage Home” original cast movies, before “Deep Space Nine,” “Voyager,” and “Enterprise,” before “Discovery,” before “!@#$%^&* My Dad Says,” and before the current movie reboot featuring an entirely new set of actors. I am enjoying the reboot well enough, but at this point Star Trek is just another science fictional franchise in a universe crowded with them. I have graduated from that phase of my life, and moved on to the next shiny object.

This book took me back to what I loved about Star Trek. Structured like a good TV episode or one of the better movies, it has all the tropes and character types you have come to expect, and more. It takes place at a hotel called the Botany Bay, and each chapter is named for a different TV episode. I noticed a few clever in-jokes as I read through them, enough to know that there must have been many more embedded in the text that I missed due to having been away for so long. There is little point to summarizing the plot because that would spoil the ride. But I will say that it has one of the best explanations for how zombies are turned and develop that I’ve read in a while. (This may be faint praise, as I’m not a zombie connoisseur.) And Houston, we really have a problem . . .

I will go out on a limb here and speculate that one of the reasons the modern manifestations of the Star Trek franchise seem less special to me now is that they have become darker, grittier, and more morally ambiguous, with visual effects so polished that they have taken on a life and story of their own. The original Star Trek was a rag-tag child of the 1960’s, motivated by the promise that science and technology can be a force for good, and optimism that humankind has the capacity to better itself and transcend its worst impulses. The first movies and the TV series of the 1980s and 1990s were in this mold too. Night of the Living Trekkies draws on this optimistic tradition in a way that is surprisingly touching in the midst of chaos, death and destruction. I don’t know if this book will convert any newbies to Trek fandom who weren’t already here, but it’s great fun for those of us who love the universe and still hope that it has something to teach our cynical age.

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Film Review: Fallen Kingdom, The New Modern Prometheus

This year, 2018, marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. The classic novel was written as a parlor game in 1816, the year without a summer, by the teenage Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley).

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Wordsworth Classic Edition

The Governing Myth

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HRW Edition

Her story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his monster casts a long shadow. Its adaptations in popular culture have become what author Jon Turney calls “the governing myth of modern biology“: a cautionary tale of overreaching by a scientist that ends in tragedy and death.

A central tenet of this myth is that the monster, cobbled together from dead body parts and animated by electricity–created by man not God–is against the natural order of life. The story’s horror comes not just from fear of dying at the monster’s hand, but from a more primal sense that the universe itself will not abide this creation or those that created it. In the words of Ian Malcom, “Life finds a way.”

The Myth Updated

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Richard Attenborough in Miracle on 34th Street. Image: Jurassic Park wiki

The original Jurassic Park updated this governing myth for the 20th century. Instead of electricity and magnetism, the sexy new science to be harnessed is genetic engineering. And instead of a humanoid monster killing everything its creator loves, we have dinosaurs. But the same hubris, greed, and willful ignorance remain–along with the same sense of wonder and naive good intentions.

In a humanizing scene, John Hammond (played by Santa Claus from the remake of Miracle on 34th Street) explains to Dr. Sattler that he wanted to bring magic to children with Jurassic park, just as he did years ago with a flea circus. But his park is collapsing, melting all around him, along with his ice cream and his dreams.

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Jurassic Park Ice Cream. Image: Popcorn Cowboy

John Hammond, like Dr. Frankenstein before him, gets his comeuppance by the end of the book (although it takes a few movies to finish him off). And, the other craven greedy villains such as Donald Gennaro and Dennis Nedry become dinosaur food quickly and spectacularly. While of course the cute kids, Hammond’s grandchildren, survive.

Leaving the island of the dinosaurs after his misadventures, protagonist and good guy Dr. Alan Grant looks out of the helicopter to see modern pelicans flying as they should. His theory of dinosaur-to-bird evolution has been validated. His skepticism about Jurassic park itself has been vindicated, too, at great cost, and all is back in balance.

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Image: GIPHY

Life found a way to put humans in their place.

Science, not Myth

The original Jurassic Park had unforgettable characters, amazing effects, an awesome music score, and was thematically resonant with Frankenstein, a timeless classic of English literature.

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Image: Jurassic Park wiki

Jurassic Park also, almost unique among modern science fiction movies, contained a testable scientific hypothesis. The story spawned a virtual cottage industry of scientists looking for ancient DNA in amber until the half-life of DNA molecules was calculated several years ago. These results showed definitively that Jurassic-era DNA could not have survived long enough to be reconstructed to clone dinosaurs. Real-life Henry Wu wannabees will have to make do with trying to bring back animals more recently extinct.

The Myth Transformed

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is like Jurassic Park‘s ugly stepsister, a monster cobbled together crooked from all the shiny parts of the original. Its dinosaurs are bigger, badder, and uglier. The heroes are hiding out in remote cabins and ineffective non-profit organizations. The benevolent-ish grandpa, this time named Ben Lockwood, isn’t Santa Claus. He’s an invalid who is being taken advantage of by his underlings.

And the cute grandchild, Maisie? There’s something otherworldly about her too. She lives by herself, except for an elderly governess, in a creaky old mansion above a museum, and looks and talks like English musical child prodigy Alma Deutscher.

Most of the plot of Fallen Kingdom will surprise no one. People stand there, mouths open, until they get lunched by dinosaurs. Greed and hubris are again on display in ever-uglier forms. A plucky child escapes death by dinosaur and makes a fateful decision. The audience will probably cheer when a particularly horrible example of humanity tries to take a trophy from a dinosaur he thinks is asleep and then loses his arm, and his life, in the process.

What is different in Fallen Kingdom is that while the body counts pile up, balance is no longer restored to the movie’s universe. The otherworldly Maisie turns out not to be Ben Lockwood’s granddaughter at all, but a clone of his deceased daughter. The flying creatures Owen sees at the end of Fallen Kingdom aren’t Dr. Grant’s friendly pelicans. They’re pteranodons.

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Image: Jurassic World Universe

In their race to save and weaponize the most clever and aggressive dinosaurs, the humans of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom abandon another of their creations, the gentle plant-eating brachiosaurus. This is the same species that first evoked awe and wonder in the original Jurassic Park. The scene where a brachiosaurus calls to the retreating human ship as it awaits its own death on the island has become an audience tear-jerker. “That scene represents the ending of a dream that started 25 years ago,” says director J.A. Bayona.

I think this scene represents a new reading of the Frankenstein myth for modern scientists. Frankenstein’s creation does not start out cruel and murderous. He only becomes that way when he is abandoned by his creator. Hank van den Belt, a Dutch professor of philosophy, writes in Science magazine that Dr. Frankenstein’s greatest moral shortcoming was that he did not assume responsibility for his own creature and failed to give him the care he needed. Owen’s conscience is similarly pricked when he realizes how he may have failed to give Blue the care she needed.

Modern audiences for Frankenstein sometimes confuse the name of the scientist with the name of the monster. This confusion mirrors the increasingly monstrous behavior of the scientist. Dr. MG Bishop of King’s College Hospital in London is quoted in the same issue of Science:

Read the book and weep for those we have rejected, and fear for what revenge they will exact, but shed no tears for Frankenstein. Those who think, in ignorance of the book, that his is the name of the Monster are in reality more correct than not.

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A sad brachiosaurus awaits its death on Isla Nublar as the last rescue boat leaves

In Fallen Kingdom, life as we know it no longer finds a way back. Instead, the worst impulses of human nature have found a way to transform nature itself.

This review also appears in slightly edited form on Movie Babble

 

Book Review: Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich

Future Home of the Living GodFuture Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wanted to give this book 5 stars, and for audacity and imagination, I do. But I also found much of the text slow, repetitive, and curiously unemotional, and it lost a star for those aspects.

The animating idea of this novel is that in a time not too far from our own present day, evolution has begun to go backwards. Creatures are devolving from more complex to less complex forms, the very laws of the universe may be reversing themselves, the expanding universe has reached its apex and is now contracting back into singularity. What would this look like in the slow motion way that biological creatures experience time?

Such a big idea is almost impossible to bring down to our mundane level, but Erdrich almost pulls it off through the eyes and ears of Cedar Songmaker, nee Mary (Potts), a single mother newly converted to Catholicism, pregnant with a baby due on December 25th. Cedar addresses her story to her unborn child, whom she loves abstractly and believes to be normal, unlike the majority of babies born to women in the devolving universe.

Unfortunately for the reader, Cedar is the least interesting character in the novel. For the first third of the book I found her annoyingly passive and uncurious about what was happening to her world. Her trip to find her birth parents that comprises this part is interesting mostly because we get to meet Sweetie, her birth mother; Eddy, Sweetie’s husband; and Little Mary, their daughter. They are Ojibwe who live in northern Minnesota on a reservation, run a Superpumper gas station, and are setting up a shrine to a local Saint. The reader can theoretically understand and empathize with Cedar’s desire to find out more about her own origins as the world collapses around her, but her first reaction is one of muted disappointment about small things. She mopes around in her house, says nice things about her adoptive parents, avoids her baby’s father’s phone calls, reads pregnancy literature, and works on a Catholic newsletter that she is writing. This section of the novel felt like a clumsy and unnecessary expository lump, especially since I have been pregnant myself, and when I was, I read carefully the pamphlets about fetal development from my OB/Gyn’s office, which some of these chapters sounded like.

Things really get going, though, when Cedar is captured by the pregnancy police and put in a “hospital,” ostensibly for her and her baby’s protection in the New World Order, in which most pregnant women and their babies don’t survive. Again, she is surrounded by characters more interesting than she is: her fellow pregnant prisoners Agnes and Tia, the nurses who either torture them or bravely risk everything to help them escape, and her adoptive mother Sera who is highly placed in a resistance movement and actually manages to spearhead a successful escape for both Cedar and Tia.

This part makes the whole book worth reading. Events pull the reader along in suspense, and then the action almost stops for a painfully true conversation between Cedar and Sera, encapsulating mother/daughter tensions and bonds. Then Erdrich shows how effortlessly beautiful her prose can be, with a harrowing and horrifying account of Tia’s labor and stillbirth closely followed by Cedar’s wild joy and confidence in her own body’s wondrous abilities to bring forth life.

As the book barreled towards its conclusion and then petered out, I wondered if the author just couldn’t figure out how to end it properly. A dramatic climax comes about when Cedar discovers something surprising and dismaying about her own parentage, but this revelation neither propels the main plot nor illuminates the themes of devolution and collapse. And then when Cedar was captured again just before giving birth, I felt mostly tired and numb. Unlike most pregnant women in this book, she and her baby survive the birth process. Then Cedar’s voice, never particularly strong, fades into near nothingness and the book ends without our finding out what happens to her baby.

Does he become the “Living God” of the title, the messiah that his father hoped for? Has the very idea of a messiah become turned on its head, another exercise in futility? What does that mean for the future of faith?

This book promises a great deal and occasionally delivers. But because of the slow start and this truncated ending it was ultimately not as satisfying as it could have been.

View all my reviews

Film Review: Tomb Raider

This film could be called “white woman’s burden.” It mirrors social progress in a number of ways, and in others shows how far we still have to go, especially in this genre. I haven’t seen the original Angelina Jolie version of Tomb Raider, and I don’t play the Lara Croft video games, so I’m coming to this review as an outsider. My husband likes blockbuster adventure movies and superhero movies and I often do too. This one seemed like a blend of Batman and Wonder Woman with a little Isak Dinesen thrown in.

A real character?

Alicia Vikander is compelling in the lead role and is fun to watch. While that is certainly progress from Lara Croft’s origins as a character so top-heavy you wonder how she could possibly haul that chest out of bed, let alone up the side of a cliff, it’s a rather low bar to clear.

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This film starts out appearing to give her a genuine character arc. She is shown full of braggadocio and naiveté in equal measure. That she’s realistically tough in the boxing ring and fast on a bike make some of her later stunts a little less Mary-Sue-ish. And it makes sense that a poor little rich girl with more bravery than sense would get taken advantage of by muggers in Hong Kong.

Disappointing Men

But the other characters, especially the men, are disappointing. Lu Ren, who takes Lara by boat to the remote island where their fathers both disappeared, could be a much more multifaceted character than he is. He too has lost his father in mysterious circumstances and is apparently suffering from depression and alcoholism. He nonetheless survives a disastrous shipwreck, shrugs off being shot in the shoulder, and bounces back from a direct blow to the face to become a handy sidekick and helper when Lara needs him most. He spends most of the film taking this sort of abuse, sometimes for laughs. Daniel Wu, who plays Lu Ren, is a charismatic, famous actor in China, and deserves better. Some actual chemistry between these two characters would have gone a long way.

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Sprout

Her father, Richard Croft, starts out more promising. Appearing to have lost his fragile grip on reality, at first he thinks he is hallucinating when he sees Lara on the island. But the flashbacks that show their relationship are saccharine-sweet and confusing in their timeline.  The camera lingers on a goodbye scene between Richard a roughly 8-year-old Lara, to the point that it makes you think that that must have been when he disappeared. Which would make the current Lara all of 16 . . . but wait . . . she’s really 21.  When teenage Lara finally shows up in the final flashback, it’s redundant.

Her relationship with her father seems to consist solely of his leaving and promising to come back. And surely an eccentric, slightly mad, grief-stricken billionaire titan of industry could have come up with a better nickname for his daughter than “Sprout.” I was reminded for some reason of an underwhelming scene between a young Tony Stark and his father. Superhero movies are obsessed with parents, particularly fathers, yet they never seem to understand, or be able to dramatize, what kids really need from these figures.

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Several times during the movie, it is hinted that Richard might actually be mad, or at least that his mental health has been compromised by grief and isolation. It is further suggested that Lara herself is skeptical about her father’s quest but blinded by her love and respect for him. That she shares this skepticism with Lu Ren and with the antagonist, Mathias Vogel, could have made for some gripping psychological mind games as the legends of Himiko are explored during the climax. But this opportunity too is squandered.

The fruits of privilege

This iteration of Tomb Raider proves that women can be believable, relatable action heroes, something that was actually in question 30 years ago. But this female hero has only gotten as far as Bruce Wayne and Charles Xavier before her. A rich, privileged white person uses the fruits of that privilege to fight villains that look like herself and grapple with the ugly legacy of colonialism. The modern Lara Croft is a breakthrough character for white women, maybe, but not for the majority of the human race.

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This movie, thankfully, doesn’t take itself all that seriously. This is what saves it from being a self-important mess. At one point, as Lara’s situation gets even more dire, she looks at the camera and says “Really?”

We would all do well to watch this film in that spirit.

Check out my review, and others, on MovieBabble!

Film Review: A Wrinkle in Time

The book by Madeleine L’Engle on which this movie was based was one of my childhood favorites. I looked forward to the film eagerly because I wanted to see a gifted director do justice to the material. I thought that many of the changes were promising updates for modern audiences, able to bring the book’s uplifting message of love to more people.

On an even more personal note, my still-unfinished novel, Hallie’s Cache, was inspired by A Wrinkle in Time. In both stories, a misfit young teen girl looks for her missing father and grows into herself in the process. A Wrinkle in Time was rejected from 26 publishers before going on to win the Newberry Medal and become one of the most beloved children’s books of the 20th century. There has been a previous attempt at making a movie out of this material in 2003, with mixed success. It has always defied categorization: is it for adults or children? Is it fantasy or science fiction? Is it too Christian or not Christian enough?

After watching the current version, I’m not convinced that it’s possible to make a good movie out of this book. The director, Ava Duvernay, did everything right: she assembled a great cast and approached the project with care, respect, and a wide open vision. And I enjoyed it on its own terms; I identified with Meg and her teenage problems. I found Storm Reid to be an appealing and relatable actress. I rooted for her and her friends to save her father. I loved the trippy visuals, the costumes, the animations. I even cried for the brokenness in the world, as gently as it was portrayed, and cheered for the family’s reunion. But it wasn’t the story that packed the emotional punch that I remembered and loved all these years. Opening to mixed reviews and eclipsed at the box office, it is likely to remembered, if at all, as a footnote to Duvernay’s career.

As much as I hate to admit this about a childhood favorite book, the problem is likely not with the filmmakers, but with the source material. Written in 1962, A Wrinkle in Time is of a particular time and place. The book’s characters are all European-Americans, redheads or mousy-brown-haired with Anglo-sounding names like Charles Wallace and Dennys (who, with his twin brother, is wholly absent from this movie). It famously opens with the Bulwer-Lytton cliche: “It was a dark and stormy night,” as Meg watches a thunderstorm from her lonely, cluttered attic room. For these reasons, and because of the three witches, the gossip about Mr Murry’s disappearance, and the neighbor’s sheets drying on the line, I had always pictured it taking place in an eccentric, secretive New England small town–a small town with a dark side like the ones that L’Engle herself, and her contemporary Shirley Jackson, lived in and raised their families.

Bringing this story out into the bright Southern California sunshine as this movie did took too much of the edge off. Certainly there are edgy areas of Southern California too, but we didn’t see those. The Murrys’ home is gorgeous and spacious. The middle school Meg attends is a well-resourced model of ethnic diversity headed by principal of color who is a three-time science teacher of the year award winner. This muddies the rationale for why Meg is bullied by the other students. In the book, Charles Wallace is an odd prodigy, perhaps a savant on the autism spectrum although that was not understood at the time the book was written, and Meg gets in trouble at school for defending him from bullies. She is thereby always his protector, and her actions at the end of the book, when her fierce love saves Charles Wallace from IT’s clutches, are perfectly in character and make emotional sense.

In the movie on the other hand, Charles Wallace is still a prodigy, but he appears quite well tolerated, happy, and self-contained, and he doesn’t need Meg to protect him. If anything, he is the one protecting Meg. Meg’s outcast status is instead attributed to her father’s disappearance. But in present day California, with so many children being raised by single parents and blended families, her father’s disappearance would not be the scandal it was in 1962. Her loneliness can and does lead her to act out further, but it is a feeble justification for her school situation as depicted here.

Details of what happened on Camazotz are also compressed in the movie. The book’s depiction of Camazotz, the planet that has given in to evil, gives off a sort of Kafkaesque bureaucratic banality. Complete conformity to a 1950s suburban nuclear family ideal is expected, and outsiders’ food turns to dust in their mouths. “IT,” the master controller, appears in the book as a disembodied brain on a dais. IT appeals to Charles Wallace and seduces him to ITs side because of ITs ability to control and impose order on messy human impulses. IT was a metaphor for the tyranny of a society that values and runs on brains and intellect alone and disregards love. That in the book there are two battles against IT and that Meg must make the decision on her own to return to Camazotz and rescue Charles Wallace compound the sense of foreboding and dread, as well as making Meg’s triumph sweeter and more meaningful when she does ultimately rescue him.

The movie, however, shows little of Camazotz; the scene with the kids bouncing balls in unison seems like a confusing non-sequitur rather than a Potemkin village masking the fear and desperation of the populace. After her father and Calvin are defeated, Meg is forced immediately into lonely battle with IT. This battle scene was disappointing. Some of the creepy tree-like things with branches might have supposed to have been neurons with dendritic trees, but the overall connection of the movie’s IT to an emotionless, loveless, disembodied brain capable of the ultimate in mind control was weak.

The rescue scene itself focused too much on whether Meg herself was lovable in spite of her faults and not enough on the transforming power of Meg’s sacrificial love for Charles Wallace. The book is unapologetically Christian in outlook, reflecting L’Engle’s own Christian faith and naming Jesus as one of the warriors against the darkness that enveloped Camazotz. I believe that L’Engle intended Meg’s love for Charles Wallace here to be selfless and Christlike, yet her Christian imagery and references have been dropped from the movie, to its detriment. Mrs. Who quotes and references many world religions; Christianity could have been included there. And why not acknowledge Jesus’ role, and the role of faith for many Christians, in fighting evil? True to her character, the scientist Meg would likely remain skeptical, and that would be okay too. Warriors can come from all faith traditions, and from no faith tradition.

The other big problem with this story is the science, the so-called “Wrinkle in Time” itself, known in both the movie and the book as a tesseract. Back in 1962 at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, when the theory of relativity was new and humans hadn’t yet gone to the moon, the idea that you could bend space-time with your mind by “tuning” it to the right frequency might have been a little more believable than it is now. There is a scene in the movie in which Dr. Murry is shown giving a seminar about how tessering works. Jeers and guffaws of disbelief come from the audience; as well they would in real life. He sounds like a New Age motivational speaker in the tradition of Werner Erhard, or a trickster like Uri Geller.

I still remember when an annoying boy in my physics class explained to me what a tesseract “really” was: a cube within a cube, a projection of 4-dimensional space into 3 dimensions the way the drawing of a cube on paper as a square within a square was a projection of 3-dimensional space onto 2. There was nothing about wormholes or traveling 93 million miles with just your mind. Talk about disappointing! It wouldn’t have taken much to give Dr. Murry in the film a high-tech device that would make tessering possible, or some novel psi powers based on his and his wife’s research. These would have to be hand-wavey and entirely fictional of course, but good shows have been based on less. What doesn’t work is asking us to accept that New Age mumbo-jumbo somehow became true for this family because they “believed in themselves.”

As a smart girl who was interested in science, I believed too long in this book’s oversimplified and inaccurate version of how science works. Meg’s parents worked together in a homemade lab; when her father disappeared, her mother continued her experiments in the kitchen, bunsen burner on one counter, soup on the other. There was no mention of grants, funding, students, safety regulations, collaboration outside the family unit, or even publication. It’s a more romantic and family-friendly vision of doing science than has ever actually existed. Perhaps this vision was inspired by the real-life Curies, French Nobel Laureates Marie and Pierre and their children, who discovered radioactivity; yet their work had a visible dark side. Modern science is safer for its practitioners, and it is more open and collaborative than either what the Curies experienced or L’Engle’s vision. It is also more expensive and more technical, and requires more energy and perseverance than romantic genius for success. A film that wants to inspire young people in science in the 21st century would do well to tell a more accurate story about the scientific process. This film drops that ball completely.

I hope this movie inspires its young audience, but sadly, I don’t believe it’s memorable enough for that.

Thursday Doors: Clarion West

This is not the door to the actual Clarion West writers’ workshop in Seattle. I attended that workshop in 1987 just after I graduated from college and before I went to graduate school. I put writing away for a long time, studying neuroscience and raising a family. I’m not done with either of those activities, exactly, although I’m now an instructor with Science from Scientists rather than a graduate student, and my kids are teenagers. And I’m not done with writing either. No, I’m just starting back up.

This door belongs to the house of one of my Clarion classmates. Although we kept in sporadic touch after the workshop, attended a convention together, and still sent yearly holiday cards, I hadn’t seen her in person for about 25 years. In between then and now we had both gotten married, had kids, and pursued other interests.

When I moved back to CA I realized that she was not that far away; I could drive to her house in less than 2 hours. But it took more than 2 years for me to get the trip organized. Finally, my husband was on a big power trail geocaching trip, my son didn’t mind getting himself meals and was old enough to be left alone for a day, and so I went.

Door

We had an awesome time. I didn’t know that I would as I knocked at the very normal-looking door in the very normal-looking California suburb, but I suspected. With some friends–writers especially–time doesn’t pass the way you think.

Thursday doors is a weekly feature in which door lovers share their pictures from doors all around the world. Stop by Norm 2.0’s blog to say hello and see some of the others.

Book Review: 2022 (Percipience #1) by Ken Kroes

2022 (Percipience, #1)2022 by Ken Kroes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a thought-provoking, if flawed, book. I like near-future ecofiction and I like playing around in fiction with utopias, dystopias, and planned communities. Kroes’ ideas about these concepts are worth pursuing. How can you set up sustainable communities? Who pays for it? Who gets to (or has to) live there? How can you plan for these communities to last through what you expect will be a grim future? I wish more of the book had been devoted to questions like this.

I found the character development a little underwhelming. I didn’t believe Olivia would have been chosen for a top-secret microbiology project. Mikhail came across as a dork rather than an evil genius. It was almost comical that Diane and Olivia didn’t recognize the misnamed Hope before she burned down their trailer. And Spencer was completely mysterious to me–he seemed to just fit into whatever box the author needed at the moment: spy, dupe, model, love interest, puppy . . . None of the characters had a particularly unique voice, except for Sue, sometimes, which made the story periodically confusing, especially with all the head-hopping.

But simply viewing the characters as blank slates brings the reader up against the inconvenient truths the novel wants to examine: we humans are vulnerable and our behavior usually makes the problem worse. The institutions we expect to protect us, even the good guys, have their limits. And stress and danger make people do stupid, craven things. This book will stay with me longer than it deserves to based on the writing alone. It depicts is a future we want to avoid, made more frightening because it is populated by people who are so ordinary and banal.

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Book Review: The Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

The Box of TricksThe Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a fun read and I think it would make a good movie. The conceit at the bottom of it all, the reason the planet Earth appears to be going to Helena Handbasket, was a nice touch, and something I hadn’t seen before. Similarly, several of the SF/fantasy elements around time, such as unaging, crop enhancement, collecting, etc. are unexpectedly and wittily rendered. Comparisons to Douglas Adams are well deserved.  Continue reading Book Review: The Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

Always Walking Away

RIP Ursula K Le Guin.

I read her story, “The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas,” as a teenager, and I never forgot it. The name Omelas comes from her reading of a street sign to Salem, O(regon) backwards. “[… People ask me] ‘Where do you get your ideas from, Ms. Le Guin?’ From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally. Where else?” The story is about a beautiful, vibrant town, Omelas, whose very existence rests on the hidden suffering of a neglected and abused child. Most residents of Omelas learn to ignore the child’s suffering when they become aware of it. A few do not; they are the ones who walk away.

More recently Le Guin’s social commentary has been on display in the Oregonian, as she protested the coverage of the “Flock of Right-Wing Loonybirds” who had taken over the Malheur wildlife refuge, or gave her opinion of “alternative facts.” To pretend the sun can rise in the west is a fiction, to claim that it does so as fact (or “alternative fact”) is a lie. 

I’m grateful I got to meet Le Guin for a week one summer at the Clarion West SF writers’ workshop in Seattle. There she sometimes referred to herself self-deprecatingly and humorously as “the little she-slug.” I wrote a fantasy story that she critiqued, called “Sunrise on West Lake.” Inspired by my time living in West Berlin before the wall fell, it was about a musician who escaped, who walked away from a repressive society. The protagonist was named Ravena after the corner bus stop where I caught the bus to the workshop. That corner was actually at Ravenna and Woodlawn, in the Green Lake neighborhood. But I dropped one of the n’s, just for fun. Ursula’s first comment on the story was, “why do female fantasy protagonists’ names always have to end with -a? Yours doesn’t!”

“Sunrise,” like every short story I’ve ever written, wanted to be a novel. Recently I wrote another short story that wants to be a novel, called “Life and the Maiden.” The title is meant as a play on “Death and the Maiden,” which is the title of a song, poem, movie, and string quartet by Franz Schubert. Music still plays a role in this more recent story, but the protagonist this time, a “maiden” named Viola (after the instrument), rebels against her musician parents and doesn’t play. And she too walks away, literally, from her childhood home. While writing the walking away scene, I pictured Gwyneth Paltrow’s character from Shakespeare in Love, sole survivor of a shipwreck, walking away from shore towards adventures unknown; propelled towards a new life from the ruins of the old.

John Scalzi wrote this wonderful tribute to Le Guin in this morning’s LA Times: http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-leguin-scalzi-20180123-story.html

In it, he writes about a different book of Le Guin’s, Always Coming Home, and the effect that it had on him:

“This was a subtle gift that Le Guin gave to a young person wanting to be a writer — the idea that there was more to writing fiction than ticking off plot points, that a rewarding story can be told without overt conflict, and that a world wide and deep can be its own reward, for those building the world and those who then walk through it. “Always Coming Home” is not generally considered one of Le Guin’s great books, but for me as a writer and a reader, it was the right book at the right time. The book turned me on to the possibility of science fiction beyond mere adventure stories for boys — that the genre could contain, did contain, so much more. The book opened me to read the sort of science fiction I didn’t try before.”

I hadn’t thought of this interpretation until now. I understand walking away, but I had had trouble getting through Always Coming Home. At the time I considered that a bug, but maybe it was a feature. Maybe Scalzi’s words are a worthy counterpoint to some of the straitjacketed genre plotting advice that is out there.

I’ve been to Salem O, and my daughter goes to school there. The Pacific Northwest, where Le Guin lived, is a beautiful place. One can imagine where she got the inspiration for the joys and delights of the Omelas summer festival. “The Ones who Walk Away” was written in 1973; it was chilling back then. Read through the lens of modern politics and formulaic action-packed dystopian fiction, at first it seems smaller in scope and even a little quaint. But it still hits me, a privileged, white, (no-longer-so) young person, someone who would theoretically love to participate in such a summer festival, right in the gut.

I wonder again, where are the walkers going? Maybe this is a story about a failure of imagination, or a failure of faith. Maybe instead of walking away, they should have stayed and tried to change things. Can you really walk away from Omelas? Are you walking away, like Viola, to a brave new world? Or, in the walking away, are you finally coming home?

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“Life and the Maiden” was officially rejected yesterday from the short story contest I sent it to, so I am free to disregard the word limit and turn it into the novel it wants to be. (Yay?!)