Monday, August 20, 2012

Todd Akin is medieval in his thinking

     The whole world seems abuzz about Todd Akin's comment that victims of "legitimate" rape rarely get pregnant, but everyone seems to be focusing on the wrong part of that statement.  Akin's use of "legitimate," while insulting, is not his way of saying that some rape is "legitimate," but rather that if a woman was REALLY raped, instead of just saying she was raped, she wouldn't get pregnant.
     That belief is medieval, and I don't mean figuratively. In Ian Mortimer's "A Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England," which I reviewed a few weeks back, the author reported that this was one of the beliefs of the time. So if your wife claims she was raped, but she got pregnant, she had really been a willing participant, and hence an adulterer. So the real shocker is that Akin still believes this, 400 years of science notwithstanding.
    In journalism, this is called burying the lead. Forget his poor choice in referring to "legitimate rape." The real message is that while liberals sometimes refer to conservatives as having "medieval" beliefs, in Akin's case it is not mere hyperbole.
     It is also indicative of some conservatives' belief that when it's a choice between believing what your own prejudices tell you and what science tells you, believe the former (including that global warming isn't caused by man or is even real). It also is evidence of the so-called "Republican War on Science" (as Chris Mooney's book on the subject was titled).
     This is a teaching moment, and it would be a shame if Akin drops out because of this. Sadly, his beliefs in the near impossibility of rape leading to pregnancy alone would not have been enough to do it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

'Soylent Green' author dead

     I just learned via Twitter (thank you, Neil Gaiman) that science fiction author Harry Harrison has died. The Associated Press hasn't put up anything yet, but they may later.
     He wasn't one of the most famous SF writers, but he'd been plugging away for more than half a century, including a proto-steampunk novel, A Trans-Atlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!, which took place in a world where the American Revolutionaries lost, the British still rules America, and a descendant of the traitor George Washington is trying to redeem the family name by building the engineering structure of the title. I've never read the book, but it's been on my list for a long time.
     Harrison also wrote a series of comic futuristic crime novels about "Slippery Jim" DiGritz, aka "The Stainless Steel Rat," and is probably best known for Make Room! Make Room!, which was the basis for the Charlton Heston SF film Soylent Green. Typical for Hollywood, the film was so loosely based on the novel that the title element itself, the food substance soylent green, does not appear in the book, and it certainly isn't people.
     But Harrison had a good sense of humor about it, and recounted his experience with the film in interviews (I believe I read it in John Brosnan's Future Tense: The Cinema of Science Fiction and/or in Omni's Screen Flights: The Future According to Science Fiction Cinema edited by Danny Peary, both, alas, out of print). He said the overpopulated Earth was the point of the novel, not the surface murder mystery, so it didn't really matter.
     He also got permission to visit the set, where he handed out copies of his book to all the technicians and crew, pointed out scientific errors (in this petroleum-poor future, they had plastic bags in one scene) and even helped Edward G. Robinson understand his character better ("You're me," Harrison told the great actor, because the author would be thew same age as the character by the time of the film), and the only character in the story who remembers a world where natural food was widely available in great variety, where two families weren't forced to live in one apartment -- y'know, the good old days).
     If you want to read a full obituary, The Guardian has one here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Michigan Renaissance Festival opens

     Steampunks looking for someplace to wear their duds, fans of A Game of Thrones or just anyone who likes wandering minstrels, knights and ladies, odd shoppes and eccentric performers can hie themselves hence to the shire of Hollygrove and enter the realm of the Michigan Renaissance Festival.
     The popular medieval attraction opens this weekend, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Aug. 18-19, and every weekend through Sept. 30, plus Labor Day Monday, Sept. 3, and Friday, Sept. 14.
     Every weekend has a theme. This weekend's is the "Royal Pet & Ale Festival," a pet-centered event with contests, demonstrations and shows.
     For the non-pet-impressed, there's a microbrew tasting, 10 a.m.-7 p..m Saturday, noon-7 p.m. Sunday, ages 21 and older, $5 for 5 tastes, the "Press-A-Wench!" weight lifting competition  wirth (comely maidens in place of barbells) and a hot wing-eating contest.
     Future themes include “Highland Fling,” Aug. 25-26; “High Seas Adventure,” Sept. 1-3; “Wonders of the World,” Sept. 8-9; “Shamrocks & Shenanigans! Sept. 15-16;  “Harvest Huzzah,” Sept. 22-23; And  “Sweet Endings! Sept. 29-30.
     Entertainment includes comedy acts, musical groups, magicians, jousters, stunt performers and dancers. And fully as much a part of the experience of fun are the many shops selling everything from armor to artwork, scents to tastes, weapons to musical instruments. Plus, where else can you engage in medieval people watching? 
     Tickets are $20.95, $18.95 ages 65 and older and college students with I.D., $11.95 ages 5 to 12at the gate, or $17.95, $9.50 ages 5 to 12 in advance.
     For more information, visit the Michigan Renaissance Festival website.

Paul Ryan abjures Ayn Rand

     Ayn Rand is in the news again. Seven-term U.S. Representative and presumptive GOP 2012 vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan has famously espoused Rand's writings and philosophy as recently as 2005 in a speech to the pro-Rand Atlas Society. More recently, in a National Review article, he's quoted as saying:

     “I reject her philosophy,” Ryan says firmly. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas,” who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he says.

 Cover from (USA) and AP photo (cropped)
      You mean he hadn't noticed before? Or did he not think that it mattered until the tea party subjected such statements to closer scrutiny?
     Anyone who's read The Fountainhead knows that Rand was an atheist, and it's impossible that anyone who's read that book could not have known the fact. Only if Ryan was a poseur who never read Rand but thought it made him seem like an intellectual or edgy to pretend to have read Rand could he have been unaware of this.
     Ryan doesn't say he now rejects her philosophy on its merits, only because it is an atheist philosophy. For example, he could say (but doesn't) that he rejects its atheism but accepts its economic principles or tenets of self-reliance. No, he rejects it outright.
     In that same National Review article, Ryan also claims that he never required his staff and interns to read Rand (it's described as an urban myth, like The Vanishing Hitchhiker and other told-to-a-friend-of-a-relative-of-a-friend stories that Jan Harold Brunvand has been collating, collecting and analyzing for decades). Well, that got the Atlas Society's dander up, so it's released an audio file of the speech and printed select transcripts on its web site (here):

     "I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff. We start with Atlas Shrugged. People tell me I need to start with The Fountainhead, then go to Atlas Shrugged. There’s a big debate about that."

     (For the record, you should start with The Fountainhead, then go to Atlas Shrugged, if for no other reason than that Atlas is about twice as long as Fountainhead; it's like stretching before a marathon.)

     Maybe he was just pandering to the Atlas Society then, but it's never a good idea to lie about something you said into a tape recorder, particularly when you're now dissing their idol, but that doesn't make Ryan a bad person necessarily. It just makes him a politician. Most politicians (heck, most people) deny they said something they actually said, usually indignantly and with deprecating remarks about the person who says they said them.
     Maybe Ryan really doesn't remember saying that. Maybe he said that but didn't do it. Maybe he said and did it but is afraid it will hurt him politically and so is an inconvenient truth.
     Don't reject Ryan because he does or doesn't admire Ayn Rand.
     As Shelly Long's Diane Chambers said when Ted Danson's Sam Malone told her that the crass guy hitting on her is married, "Well, I am sorry to hear that. ...  I was hoping to reject you based solely on your personality."

'Me the People' is an entertaining, informative look at the Constitution and the Founding Fathers

Review:Me the People: 
One Man’ Selfless Quest
to Rewrite the Constitution 
of the United States of America’
By Kevin Bleyer
(Random House)

Cover image from Random House

      If, as the proverb goes, “Many a true word is spoken in jest,” then there’s a lot of truth (or at least “truthiness”) in humorist Kevin Bleyer’s Me the People: One Man’s Selfless Quest to Rewrite the Constitution of the United States. Not so much in his rewritten Constitution as in his examination of the history of how the Constitution was originally written. Beneath the jokes and exaggerations, there is real history of how what is often now touted as a masterpiece of the Founding Father’s brilliance is actually an imperfect, lazy compromise written by a lot of people who wanted to get out of a hot, poorly ventilated room and get back to their homes, businesses and taverns.
     James Madison, for instance, who is called the father of the Constitution, was profoundly unhappy with the final document. And Thomas Jefferson thought it would and should be rewritten every few years.
     Bleyer, a former writer for Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, gets a little too silly at times -- with a few too many references to the film National Treasure, in which Nicolas Cage steals the Declaration of Independence, and to Bleyer’s own supposed plans to steal (or buy) the Constitution – but he also goes over the history of the Articles of Confederation and each article of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (though he only covers a few of the other amendments in detail). Supposedly he even interviews Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, who tells him the Constitution is dead, and that’s a good thing. Whether it’s a real interview by Bleyer or cribbed from another interview, it effectively presents and explains Scalia’s case for controversial rulings such as upholding a state’s anti-sodomy law.
     Me the People made me think and laugh. Recommended.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The true death should come for 'True Blood'

Dennis O'Hare as Russell Edgington  in a scene from the fifth season of HBO's "True Blood." (AP photo)

     HBO's original series "True Blood," based on Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire Mysteries/the "Sookie" Stackhouse novels, is now in its fifth season, but it's been an unmitigated snooze.
     Any series picks up baggage as it goes along, and "True Blood" has picked up more than most. When the season ends, there will be a total of 60 episodes, though for all its baggage it seems like a thousand.
     Maybe it's time for "True Blood"  to meet the true death: staked, silvered or sunned to oblivion.
    There are going to be a lot of SPOILERS in the next paragraphs. 
     Anna Paquin's Sookie, ostensibly the main character, hasn't had much to do for the past two seasons. This year Paquin's apparently pregnant, so maybe that's why she's doing her impression of a tree stump.
     Stephen Moyer's Bill Compton and Alexander Skarsgaard's Eric Northman, her erstwhile lovers, have also been mostly sidelined, too, waiting for this Vampire Authority "Mainstreamers" v. "Sanguinista" movement plot to become interesting (it mostly involves standing in the same room and talking). Dennis O'Hare's insane, powerful, 3,000-year-old vampire Russell Edgington, so memorably interesting and crazy two seasons ago, seemed neutered until the end of the most recent episode. Too little, too late.
     Other time-wasting subplots have included an Ifrit (kind of an evil genie) stalking some Iraq war vets, werewolves fighting over who's the pack leader, vigilantes killing "shifters," Sookie's friend, Tara (Rutina Wesley), becoming a vampire (how do you make that boring? I don't know, but they have), and the denizens of a (dull, kitschy) fairy nightclub revealing that Sookie's parents were killed by a vampire.
     Meanwhile, Lafayette has turned into Whoopi Goldberg in "Ghost." A subplot threatened to have him killed by his dead lover's father to "take back" the magic powers he manifested last year. No, someone kills the father and saves him at the last minute with no reason given. His lips were sewn shut first, but now show no visible scars.
     Jason Stackhouse, Sookie's brother who used to be a shiftless horndog, has completed his transformation into Alan Alda after realizing that his behavior was due to being "taken advantage of"' by a schoolteacher years ago. Now he's ... responsible.
     Shifter Sam Merlotte has likewise gotten boring. Now he's become "Manimal," the shape shifting detective, with his boring, bitchy "Manimalia" sidekick and her cute "puppy" daughter..
     And Andy Bellefleur, who became sheriff when the previous sheriff retired, had sex with a fairy and is now in a serious relationship with a witch.
     The show's always had subplots, and the worse seasons have been when one storyline takes over to the extent there's no room for subplots, but this is ridiculous. We need one strong storyline, not a dozen tiny, boring, inconsequential ones.
     Even the sex and nudity are now boring, being mainly confined to Alcide taking his shirt off before he tries to but doesn't have sex, Sam Merlotte and his girlfriend shifting back to human form after chasing a bad guy in the form of gerbils or something, and Lilith, the mother of all vampires, materializing naked and covered in blood before disappearing without touching anyone.
    There's more sex and heat on "The Big Bang Theory."
     The last interesting thing to happen on "True Blood" was at the beginning of season four when Sookie spent an hour in  Faerie, came back and more than a year had passed. It was a clever way to fast forward through some dull exposition and get the story moving again, as well as being one of the consequences of a visit to faerie in folklore. It didn't last, but it was a good try.
    I haven't read any of Harris' novels, and the plot descriptions on Wikipedia don't make me want to start, but they don't seem as cluttered.
     Maybe the next two episodes will magically make the preceding 10 seem more interesting, but I doubt it.
     I'm getting my stakes sharp.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Is “Total Recall” (2012) a remake or not?

Colin Farrell, in a menory-implanting machine that looks nothing like the one in the earlier version of “Total Recall,” of which this is in no way, shape or form a remake. Yeah, right. (AP photo)

     The makers of the new film “Total Recall” claim it is not a remake of the Paul Verhoeven-Arnold Schwarzenegger film. They claim it has more in common with the Philip K. Dick story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” upon which the earlier film was based. As evidence, they point out that unlike the earlier film, there is not trip to Mars in the new film.
     I haven't seen the film yet, but while I'd like to believe it's more faithful to Dick, it's plainly b.s. Aside from having the identical title, the same new name given to the protagonist (Quail in the story, Quaid in both films), the same domestic setup (he has a fake wife to help maintain the fake memories, and a real, rebel love interest) it also has one other detail that Dick didn't include: a three-breasted woman.Why? Because it's a freaking remake!
     Why don't they want the film called a remake? I guess because remake is a dirty word. It suggests something secondhand, second rate. This is also b.s. Remakes are sometimes better than the original.
     Case in point: John Huston's film of “The Maltese Falcon” was the third version of Dashiel Hammett's novel. The first two are barely remembered, even though one of them starred Bette Davis. But there have been no versions since. It is almost universally considered a classic, one of the best films ever made, where the writing, direction and casting all came together.
    The earlier “Total Recall” has its fans, but I don't think it's considered a classic. It has some great action  moments, some great paranoid moments, some great kitsch moments, but it is also a big mess. That it is better known than other films of its era is due to Arnold's charisma and star power. I don't know if this version is better, or will endure as long, but it would not exist without Verhoeven's version. For that reason, and it's shared deviations from Dick's short story, I say it is a remake, for better or worse.

Steampunk Shakespeare!

Review: The Omnibus of Doctor Bill Shakes
and the Magnificent Ionic Pentatetrameter:
A Steampunk's Shakespeare Anthology
Edited by Matthew Delman and Jaymee Goh
(Doctor Fantastique Books)

Cover from 

     I hadn't planned to review this anthology because -- full disclosure -- I submitted a story to it that was rejected, and because I've taken issue with co-editor Jaymee Goh's vituperative criticism of Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl (see “All Wound Up”).
     The problem is that nearly three months after the book's release, I haven't found any reviews of it anywhere, in print or on the web. There aren't even any reader reviews on or Barnes and
     Since no one else has stepped up, I have. Just bear in mind that while I think I'm being honest and fair, I'm also a rejected contributor.
     As the title post suggests, the curiously titled Omnibus of Doctor Bill Shakes is a steampunk Shakespeare anthology, that is stories that are steampunk versions of (or at least inspired by) the works of William Shakespeare, plays and sonnets. According to the guidelines for submissions:

     This is not intended to be a series of mash-ups, like Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, but rather re-inventions of the classic Shakespearean stories and sonnets. You are free to adapt Shakespeare’s language and themes to a Neo-Victorian setting as you will, but unlike the typical mash-up, you don’t have to include every line of original text from your chosen play or sonnet.

     The title is interesting, but it doesn't immediately suggest “steampunk Shakespeare,” and that may be part of the reason the steampunk blogosphere hasn't latched onto it. While it shows up in an search for “steampunk Shakespeare,” it doesn't on Barnes and Even on, a search for “steampunk” alone buries it on page 24 by “publication date,” and deeper still by “relevance.” As it has a very limited print run (it's mainly e-book and print-on-demand; my copy looks like it may have been made by the Espresso Book Machine), it's not likely to be encountered in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, so a more steampunky title might have helped.
     The cover is equally nondescript, depicting a (I suppose) Victorian-clad William Shakespeare, but one wearing a monocle (it's refreshing that it eschewed the steampunk cliche of goggles, but a monocle doesn't seem steampunky).
     If you get past the cover, the interior has more errors than I would expect (although that's a problem shared by most books these days, small press and major publisher), such as backward apostrophes, dashes that impale the two words they are meant to separate, and occasional missing words or words running together. In steampunk scholar Mike Perschon's introduction, the citation for one of his two sources -- of which he was the author -- gets the source's publication citation wrong (he says it was from the Sept. 2011 Locus magazine; it was actually Sept. 2010, a “steampunk” special issue).
     These are errors of carelessness, of inexperience (this is Doctor Fantastique's first book), of encroaching deadlines, but not insignificant for a 250-page paperback which retails for $20.
        As for the prose content, the anthology contains 10 stories (also nine sonnets, but I won't be reviewing them). The guidelines said of the story titles:

     We’d prefer inclusion of Steampunk elements in the title of each story, i.e. “Othello, The Half-Machine Moor of Venice” or something similar. 

     I took that to mean that the titles of the stories were not only supposed to incorporate a steampunk element but also a variation on the title of its source, so it would be immediately clear upon which work each was based. Most do, but some don't:
  1. “The Tragic Tale of King Lear’s Wonders” by Jennifer Castello
  2. “Measure for Steel-Sprung Measure” by Rebecca Fraimow
  3. “The Malefaction of Tybalt’s Mechanical Armature” by Tim Kane (based on Romeo and Juliet)
  4. “Julius C-ZR” by Bret Jones
  5. “Much Ado About Steam Presses: A Scandal of Minor Importance” by Ruth Booth
  6. “Leo’s Mechanical Queen” by Claudia Alexander (based on The Winter's Tale)
  7. “The Misfiring Love Piston of Sir John Autumnrod” by Larry C. Kay (based on Henry IV, Part Two
  8. “What You Fuel” by Jaymee Goh (based on Twelfth Night, or What You Will
  9. “A Midsummer Night’s Steam” by Scott Farrell
  10. “Richard, Dismantled” by Jess Hyslop (based on Richard II)
      The guidelines also address the issue of what the steampunk additions to the stories should do:

     We prefer stories where Steampunk elements and themes are thoughtfully applied to Shakespeare’s works. Do not simply throw automatons into Hamlet or Steampunk technology into Richard III; consider how such technological changes may reinterpret the original stories. Saying it another way: What new insight will your Steampunk version of Shakespeare bring to the Bard’s original works?

     So I'm disappointed that some of the stories just seem to ape Shakespeare's plots and dialogue with a little bit of steampunk thrown in. In most of The Omnibus of Bill Shakes, apparently nothing changes but the props.
     Another problem I have is that most of the stories are not complete stories in and of themselves. I didn't expect each story to retell the entire play, but if they are only partial adaptations, then shouldn't they be self-contained segments? Too many of them just ... stop.
     The guidelines for the anthology also included this suggestion:  

     We also welcome interpretations with queer characters, characters of color, non-heteronormative relationships, characters with disabilities, non-Eurocentric settings and other traditionally marginalized narratives in mainstream fiction.

    That guideline could have been written by Goh. It's certainly in harmony with her desires for steampunk. Her own story, however, doesn't take advantage of that suggestion (although a couple of the others do). Why?
     My favorite story by far was “A Midsummer Night’s Steam” by Scott Farrell, because it used steampunk to retell Shakespeare's basic plot in an entertaining way that was steampunk science fiction and told a complete story (almost the complete story).
    In second place, “Much Ado About Steam Presses” retold that play from the point of view of Don John who, in this version, has a reason beyond malice for his actions. It's not the whole story, leaving off before John's machinations are undone (if they are undone in this version, although he seems to think they will be), but it's a satisfying chunk.
     “Leo’s Mechanical Queen” by Claudia Alexander is almost as successful, and one of the multicultural stories (set in an alternate Louisiana that was never sold to the U.S. by Napoleon, and with a Creole/voodoo culture), with almost but not quite enough of the play to make a satisfying stand-alone story.
     “The Malefaction of Tybalt’s Mechanical Armature” by Tim Kane also almost works, setting the duel scene from Romeo and Juliet amid the post-American Civil War and recasting the reason for Tybalt's hatred of Romeo. I liked what there was of it, but it seemed too chopped off. I wish Kane would retell the whole play in this setting at length.
    The other six stories have their moments, but are ultimately more disappointing than successful. “The Tragic Tale of King Lear’s Wonders” by Jennifer Castello had a good idea: Lear as a steam inventor and ruler, whose daughters Regan and Goneril wage steampunk war over his kingdom with their own inventions (airships and tanks). I think Cordelia is a steampunk creation herself. But the story isn't effective at this length, or perhaps the writing isn't as good as the steampunk concept.
      “Measure for Steel-Sprung Measure” had an intriguing deviation from the original -- instead of death, Claudio is faced with being turned into a steam android, his brain condemned to exist without  food, sleep, touch or most other human experiences, while his sister, Isabella, is voluntarily doing something similar as a variation on entering the convent -- but it's only a scene and has no payoff. 
     “Julius C-ZR” features a slightly cyborgized Cassius seducing Brutus to kill an almost completely roboticized Caesar, but aside from the introduction of these prosthetics and steam powered chariots, nothing else seems to have changed. 
     I had high hopes for “What You Fuel” by Jaymee Goh, despite the lame title. Goh does come up with an intriguing, if underdeveloped steampunk idea: men get steampunk augmentation that is coal-fired and are thus independent, while women get clockworks that need to be rewound. But after that, the plot seems a random collection of scenes from the play.
     “The Misfiring Love Piston of Sir John Autumnrod” by Larry C. Kay, set aster the American Civil War,  features a thinly veiled Falstaff surrogate named Autumrod (Fall-Staff, Autumn-Rod -- get it?) opposite Grant's Prince Hal. But Grant is not an anointed crown prince upon whom Lincoln can bestow the presidency, so the conceit doesn't really work. And, despite the jokey title, it's a deadly serious story.
     Finally, “Richard, Dismantled” by Jess Hyslop is more of a character study than a story. It's chief difference from Shakespeare is that the king not only wears a crown, but an exoskeleton that is screwed and bolted into flesh and bone, so abdicating takes a bit more time and is physically painful. Interesting, but I'd have preferred the concept in a story not constrained by its tenuous connection to Shakespeare.
     To my mind, this anthology is a less successful steampunk version of Shakespeare than a stage production that adds steampunk props and costumes but doesn't change the text at all. At least that is fun and maintains the integrity of Shakespeare's language.
     The Omnibus of Doctor Bill Shakes is an interesting experiment and attempt to do something new with steampunk and Shakespeare, but it mostly fails.