Archive for the 'science fiction' Category

Ars gets me all (sexually) excited about Ghostbusters

June 16, 2009

What would you think if you read this headline?:

That’s right, you would think, “Awesome, they’re doing an MST3K-style group review of Ghostbusters, the classic 1984 movie starring Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd.”

Sadly, you would be wrong.

They’re in fact reviewing a new video game.


Here’s the trailer.

Obviously, I don’t follow video games. Interestingly, though, for some months I have been meaning to broach a topic that may be of interest to anyone who has read this far: the sexual politics of Ghostbusters.

Consider the facts.

  • The movie follows three screw-up science nerds (plus Winston) who go around fighting off death (a metaphor for the ’80s?) and making awkward moves on Sigourney Weaver.
  • The big no-no is “crossing the streams” of hot plasma issuing from the mechanical bishops (or “proton packs”) they lug around.
  • Which they use to conquer death, by the way.
  • That is, until death takes the form of a comforting figure from childhood.
  • Which is right after it took the form of an Eastern European model in a tight pink figure-skating leotard (who looks like she could snort rails of coke the size of highway lane markings).


  • And along the way, Bill Murray publicly emasculates a strident environmentalist.

I’m no expert in cultural criticism. I’m just noticing things. You tell me if they add up to anything you find meaningful.


Are scientists perceived as unwise?

June 2, 2009

Rounding out my NYTimes tribute, here’s science writer Dennis Overbye, who isn’t sure what to do with science vs. spirituality in Angels and Demons:

Mr. Hanks as the Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon has just exposed the archvillain who was threatening to blow up the Vatican with antimatter stolen from a particle collider. A Catholic cardinal who has been giving him a hard time all through the movie and has suddenly turned twinkly-eyed says a small prayer thanking God for sending someone to save them.

Mr. Hanks replies that he doesn’t think he was “sent.”

Of course he was, he just doesn’t know it, the priest says gently. Mr. Hanks, taken aback, smiles in his classic sheepish way. Suddenly he is not so sure.

This may seem like a happy ending. Faith and science reconciled or at least holding their fire in the face of mystery. But for me that moment ruined what had otherwise been a pleasant two hours on a rainy afternoon. It crystallized what is wrong with the entire way that popular culture regards science.


After all is said and done, it seems to imply, having faith is just a little bit better than being smart.

It’s interesting how often us science types perceive non-scientific values as an attack on our chosen way of knowing the world.

Uncle Enzo was on to something

May 28, 2009

It always stuck in my head that in Snow Crash, when Uncle Enzo is trying to get the drop on Raven at the end, he opens his mouth to hear better.

That’s my random association from this Sci Am news story:

In the study, a specially designed robotic device stretched the mouths of volunteers slightly up, down or backward while they listened to a computer-generated continuum of speech verbalizations that sounded like “head” or “had,” or something in between. When the subjects’ mouths were stretched upward, closer to the position needed to say “head,” they were more likely to hear the sounds as “head,” especially with the more ambiguous output. If the subjects’ mouths were stretched downward, as if to say “had,” they were more likely to hear “had,” even when the sounds being generated were closer to “head.” Stretching subjects’ mouths backward had no effect, implying a position-specific response. Moreover, the timing of the stretch had to match that of the sounds exactly to get an effect: the stretch altered speech perception only when it mimicked realistic vocalizations.

Next experiment:

Ostry and his colleagues hope to help answer this question with follow-up work that inverts the experiment: instead of hearing a continuum of sound, subjects will endure a continuum of stretches to see if auditory input can influence what they feel. 

And that reminds me of Alexander technique.

Alan Moore’s misogynistic legacy

May 25, 2009

7/4/10 — Question for Alan Moore fans.


5/26/09 — Post script:

Here were some things that didn’t occur to me before writing the following post:

1. That anyone beyond 30-odd friends, family and acquaintances would read it.

2. That even among that group of 30-odd, some might not appreciate having one of their artistic icons trashed on highly subjective grounds.

3. That I am not an expert authority on comic books, Alan Moore or sexism.

4. That comic book readers are deeply passionate, intelligent and thoughtful people.

5. That anyone I know who reads Alan Moore’s work and has an opinion on it is a wonderful human being.

6. That in social media as in the financial world, swans sometimes turn black.

7. That I was therefore in danger of pulling a Sasha-Frere Jones.

8. That a more honest and straightforward way to broach the subject would have been to say, “Hey, I’ve been catching up on a bunch of comics lately, including LXG, and I don’t know everything about what Alan Moore intended here, and for idiosyncratic reasons I’m not sure what to make of the violence involving Mina Murray. Can anyone help me out, before I go off half-cocked and incur the ire of a healthy cross-section of Alan Moore fans home on Memorial Day? Because I would feel bad if I inadvertently attacked a mature subculture.”

9. That possibly what I should have said was nothing.

10. That I am behind on other projects and should really be focusing on them instead of making trouble for myself.

And so, without further ado…


5/25/09 — Maybe you remember when I questioned the themes expressed in Alan Moore’s seminal comic book, Watchmen, back when the film version was in theatres? Something I could have made more hay over was the book’s brutality against women. There’s a graphic scene in which the Comedian beats and tries to rape Silk Spectre; later we learn Spectre’s daughter, Laurie, herself a superhero, was the product of a second, successful rape attempt. And more subtly, a female employee of Adrian Veidt’s is shot up in a staged attempt on his life.

I’ve since wondered if maybe I was being unfair to Moore’s project, to wit, the portrayal of how sick you’d have to be to want to become an actual superhero. As it turns out, no, Moore really does have a strong misogynistic streak. I became convinced the other day as I was flipping through one of his more recent works, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (LXG) Volume 2, where there’s another one of those scenes that makes you realize you’re watching some heavy duty psychoanalytic shit play out in comic form.


Those who saw LXG the movie (a piece of shite) will recall the story is about a “dream team” of characters assembled from Victorian era genre literature: Allan Quatermain, Mina Murray (née Harker; of Dracula), Captain Nemo, Hawley Griffin (the invisible man) and Mr. Hyde. In volume 2, the league battles the Martians from H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, who, after being attacked by characters from Gulliver of Mars, make a brake for Earth, where they torch people alive with heat rays and threaten to sack London from atop tripod-limbed war machines.

The invisible Griffin, for one, welcomes our new tentacly-brain-looking overlords, providing them details about English military fortifications in return for a privileged place in the new Martian order. The “rape scene” occurs when Griffin, his treason discovered by Mina Murray, proceeds to beat the shit out of her. For two full pages – 18 panels, set 3 by 3 on the page – Murray is bloodied, thrown down, beaten until she vomits, then made to grovel before being allowed to rest in her own puke. Only Griffin is invisible the whole time, so there’s nothing impinging our view of Murray being beaten and degraded. (If you’ve got the stomach, here’s the end of the scene.) Not quite as fun as when invisible Buffy diddled Spike.

Exrapolating from Watchmen, I gather that what LXG is “really about” is how fucked up Victorian genre heroes – the superheroes of their day – really were, and therefore how fucked up we are*. Wikipedia claims Moore was originally going to call the book The League of Extraordinary Gentlefolk but changed it to Gentlemen “to better reflect the inherently sexist attitudes of the Victorian era.” Zing, Victorian era!

It’s a clever concept. But it doesn’t explain why Murray needs to get her shit knocked around in graphic detail. Even as a shock tactic, it’s rather ham-fisted, and we’re too far removed from that era for it to be meaningful to us anyway. The simplest explanation (and I’m not the first to have caught on to it) is this: Alan Moore likes scripting violence against women. The fact that it may “work” in context doesn’t change anything. In fact, it allows Moore to get off twice, first by creating it and second by implicitly daring us to call him on it and expose ourselves as exactly the kind of insufferable prigs who are too stupid to be reading his books in the first place. Well, as this Moore-hater says, fuck that.

It’s not like I think Moore or his works are bad, because what does that mean? I enjoyed LXG as a comic, and I’ll get around to reading his other stuff eventually. He tells a good story. But as much as Moore gripes about movie producers and other toads focusing on the wrong parts of his stories, his very act of constructing a highly stylized reality in order to satirize it invites exactly the type of exploitation Moore bemoans. When David Chappelle, a smarter, more relevant social critic than Moore has ever been, saw his comedy being taken the wrong way, he stopped doing the Chappelle Show. (Ostensibly, anyway.)

Moore talks a good game – the old pushing boundaries shtick. Here he is interviewed about Lost Girls, his porno comic. And he’s got plausible deniability about his sexual politics: he and his wife Phyllis have a “lover,” Deborah Delano, and together the three of them published an anthology to drum up support against British anti-homosexual legislation.

The question is more one of legacy. Some comic book creators are aware of their medium’s unfriendliness to female characters. But they’re up against an audience – you can guess the demographic – that continues to valorize the less sophisticated creator, and that is exactly the type Moore will have emboldened.

Look at Garth Ennis’s book The Boys, a modern day Watchmen that follows a group of CIA-backed super-types who assassinate other supers who’ve gotten out of control. Ennis wants to complicate Moore’s moral universe: The main character, modeled on Simon Pegg (Spaced, Shaun of the Dead) is supposed to be the kind of nice, normal guy who would never want to wield horrific power. But Ennis immediately borrows from Moore’s worst tropes. The Pegg character joins the group after his girlfriend is ripped apart by an out of control super – in one panel the couple is holding hands on a date, in the next Pegg is holding her severed arm. Later, three male supers, members of the top dog superhero group, sodomize a new female recruit as part of her initiation.

In short, there’s a reason why the only “graphic novels” I’ve recommended to my girlfriend are We3, about escaped animal cyber-weapons (and super cute, at that), and Achewood, which properly speaking is a comic strip and is therefore outside the superhero tradition. (I’ve never read Blankets, so I can’t comment on it.)

My bottom line: If popular culture is a form of group psychotherapy, then comics like Watchmen, LXG and The Boys appeal to guys because we’re working through our ambivalence for the old-style masculine ideal. If women in comics are treated inhumanely, it’s because the men writing and reading those comics still don’t know what to do in a world of women as partners and competitors. And that’s something that could change.

The floor is now open to discussion.

Addendum: Shit, I really need to go back and read Volume 1, don’t I?

Addendum 2: I’m getting owned in comments for  a) lack of research and b) rehashing a played out argument.

Comments are now closed. Thanks for sharing your opinions.

Toward the whole Ender-Neo-masculinity thing

May 14, 2009

My super-geeky cousin Roya is threatening to flip her shit has probably flipped her shit twice and is threatening to flip it a third time if I don’t acknowledge her attempt to claim the 10-point Ender/Neo Prize.

One week ago TODAY I threw down the digitized guantlet, offering 10 points to anyone who could explain why Ender and Neo both represent “kwisatz haderach-like fusion[s] of masculine and feminine.”

Here’s Roya’s entry:

Well, they are both isolated, messianic figures who fight an enemy through a computer-generated program. Their very names describe the actions that allow them to pass from one part of their life to the next, so in that sense they are transformative figures that represent our attempt to find freedom from the tyranny that is in all of our lives. Do I earn the 10 points, or have I missed the point?

The prize remains unclaimed. Roya: We were looking for a psychoanalytic explanation, not an existentialist one. I’m very pleased at the attempt, however. 10 points to you for taking my bait. Let it never be said I don’t reward a loyal Fistling.

I’m raising the prize to 15 points. The question will now be stated as follows:

  • In what way can we adapt Evelyn Fox Keller’s gender-oriented take on object relations theory to explain the drive toward a new masculine ideal, as modeled in Ender’s Game, The Matrix and Frank Herbert’s Dune?

Hint?: There may or may not be a spoon that takes a gendered pronoun in Spanish.

Now, I may or may not have drank so much coffee this morning that I am making the kitchen table shake, so I may or may not go take a walk.

Books, books, books

May 7, 2009

Sorry to deprive you all of my minute by minute revelations. I had a special visitor in town last week and then was fighting an ear infection. Here are the books I returned to the library Wednesday:

1. The Keep by Jennifer Egan

At this stage of American literature, the notion that any reader could be made to care about any story set in a creative-writing workshop is preposterous, but against all odds, Egan makes it happen.

Forgive the long-ish setup:

Danny is making his way into a Gothic castle that may be located “in Austria, Germany or the Czech Republic” (no one seems to know for sure), where he’s been summoned by his cousin Howie, who’s in the process of turning the place into a specialty hotel.

The invitation is convenient for Danny, who’s on the lam from a brush with the mob in New York, though his history with his cousin is troubling. As children, Howie and Danny shared a world of their own, defined by a fantasy game they invented called Terminal Zeus, but as a teenager Danny sacrifices the bond; when Howie turns into a Dungeons and Dragons nerd, Danny opts to join the “normal” pack. The price of his passage is conniving in a sadistic trick that leaves Howie lost for three days in a system of caves, a “traumatic experience” that puts him on the road to drugs, delinquency and reform school, while Danny (despite his horrendous burden of guilt) peaks early as a high school soccer star.

Some 20 years later, the tables are turned. Howie has retired with a fortune from bond trading and morphed into a charismatic quasi guru, while Danny has failed in all his enterprises, including the construction of a stable identity for himself.

The “metanarrative” twist is that the above story is being written by Ray, some guy in a prison writing workshop, and not until the end do we find out how the two stories dovetail. Unfortunately, I spent the whole book thinking Ray was Danny — I’m dense like that with names in books — so maybe some of the ending’s punch was lost on me. And then there’s a second ending, which Bookslut could have done without.

I did manage to catch the shades of John Fowler’s The Magus, which I might reread — something about an ex-girlfriend, a blue film and a Greek island that’s more metaphor than place. I’m sure J.J. Abrams took notes.

Anyway, while reading The Keep I was overcome with that too familiar feeling of late that people close to me are animatronic Chuck E Cheese bears. Which is to say: blew my effing mind, bro.

2. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.”

Charlie Jane Anders of io9 counts that as one of the great first sentences in science fiction. The Wachowski brothers must have liked it enough. Funny that in both cases — Ender’s Game and The Matrix — the “one” being referred to is a kwisatz haderach-like fusion of masculine and feminine*.

If you’ve read this blog religiously you know the concept of Ender’s Game already:

In order to develop a secure defense against a hostile alien race’s next attack, government agencies breed child geniuses and train them as soldiers. A brilliant young boy, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin lives with his kind but distant parents, his sadistic brother Peter, and the person he loves more than anyone else, his sister Valentine. Peter and Valentine were candidates for the soldier-training program but didn’t make the cut—young Ender is the Wiggin drafted to the orbiting Battle School for rigorous military training.

You also know the twist ending and that I think Card’s characterization of Valentine is weak.

The book suffers a bit from the Good Will Hunting problem, meaning Card has to think up convincing ways to show us the Wiggins siblings are in fact super geniuses. Like the way Ender hacks the Battle School’s login system, which sounds borderline clever at best. When the rhetorical brilliance of Valentine and Peter becomes important to the story, Card resorts to wholesale telling, not showing.

On the plus side, Card’s introduction to the 1992 edition implies he would give teenagers the vote.

*10 points if you can explain the link before I explain it to you. Hint: think psychoanalytically.

3. Dawn by Octavia Butler

The Xenogenesis trilogy (“Dawn,” “Adulthood Rites,” and “Imago”) is Butler’s masterpiece. The Oankali, a nomadic alien species, have engineered themselves into genetic dead ends. They have refreshed themselves many times in the past through cross-planetary interbreeding. Now they are looking to take the best traits from humans by combining our genetic material with theirs, using an advanced race of tentacled breeder-beings called “ooloi.” (They have a special love for our cancer genes, which they find creative.) From the Oankali point of view, humans, taken alone, are disastrously hierarchical and domineering; the new blend will be less fierce and less individualistic. When they arrive on Earth, humans have barely survived mutual destruction.

In other words, humans have nuked themselves and the Oankali are the only thing keeping the few survivors alive.

Tyler Cowen (writer of the above) claims that on “learning that human beings are to become more like plants, [the reader] nonetheless feels an impending nausea” and “root[s] desperately for the humans who prefer to die out rather than merge.”

Uh, whatever. I’ve moved on to Adulthood Rites, the second book in the trilogy, and I really don’t give a crap about the human resisters. Maybe its Butler’s sometimes hacky use of adverbs. Maybe I’m bad at imagining how ugly the Oankali are supposed to be – covered with wormy tentacles and such.

I can appreciate she is trying to get me “to think what it’s like to have all of society arrayed against you” but for me the historical realism of her slave plantation – time travel story Kindred was more successful at making that point.

I’ll finish the series but I can tell it’s gonna be like Star Trek: Deep Space 9 — in one Ferengi ear and out the other.

Nashville Public Library – Tax Day 2009

April 15, 2009

If you’ve read any of these, let me know in the comments what you thought.

1. Kindred by Octavia Butler

“The twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of the classic novel that has sold over 250,000 copies…Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back again and again for Rufus, yet each time the stay grows longer and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has even begun.”

2. Making Sense of Life by Evelyn Fox Keller

“What do biologists want? If, unlike their counterparts in physics, biologists are generally wary of a grand, overarching theory, at what kinds of explanation do biologists aim? How will we know when we have “made sense” of life? Such questions, Evelyn Fox Keller suggests, offer no simple answers. Explanations in the biological sciences are typically provisional and partial, judged by criteria as heterogeneous as their subject matter. It is Keller’s aim in this bold and challenging book to account for this epistemological diversity–particularly in the discipline of developmental biology.”

3. Lost Boys by Orson Scott Card — I couldn’t find Ender’s Game

“Step Fletcher, his wife, DeAnne, and their three children move to Steuben, North Carolina, thinking – hoping – it might be just the right place for them. Its traditional values coincide with theirs, and Step has the promise of a good job at a hot software company. But Steuben is definitely not right for their oldest child, eight-year-old Stevie. Introspective even in the most comfortable surroundings, Stevie becomes progressively more withdrawn from this alien place. Soon he is animated only by computer games and a troop of fictitious playmates. The Fletchers’ concern for Stevie turns to terror when they discover that other young boys have disappeared from Steuben – and someone seems to be stalking Stevie.”

speaker for the dead

March 27, 2009


speakerforthedeadRemember when I mentioned Ender’s Game, the story about children trained to wage space war against bug-like aliens? I’m now going to ruin the surprise: the kids think they are playing simulated war games but the battles on their view screens are in fact real. They win the war in some daring maneuver that completely wipes out the alien enemy. Then they find out what they’ve done.

In the sequels, Ender, the leader of the battle school kids, is wrought with grief for his role in the genocide and has fled to a foreign world, where he has adopted the role of “speaker for the dead” for the departed race. Mostly what I remember about the sequel is that he meets some aliens described as piggy and they end up having weird rituals. I forget the particulars of Ender’s being speaker, but I think the point was to preserve some trace of the departed aliens identity by having someone think about them and maybe griever for them, giving them a representative of sorts, someone who listened with their ears and spoke with their voice.

The phrase popped into my head tonight while I was sitting at the end of the driveway staring at the trees down the broad, steep hill in our backyard. First I thought about whether Zach Braff was a cliche of a human being. Then I thought about my dad. I need to go talk to my parent’s old pastor, Revered Jim, the one who did the memorial service. I touched on the same ideas in my rumblings on the distributed identity of David Foster Wallace.

If you’re interested in the speaker for the dead role I’ll let you look it up. Better yet, read the book and refresh my memory.

Watchmen: uglier than I would have admitted

March 23, 2009

Remind me to take myself less seriously when i drone on and on unironically. I’m referring to my analysis of Watchmen. In scrutinizing the story on its own terms, I may have missed a large chunk of the point.

Here’s Anthony Lane in the New Yorker: “The problem is that [director Zack] Snyder, following [author Alan] Moore, is so insanely aroused by the look of vengeance, and by the stylized application of physical power, that the film ends up twice as fascistic as the forces it wishes to lampoon.”

So, authoritarian? Check. But what about misogynistic?

You want to see the attempted rape of a superwoman, her bright latex costume cast aside and her head banged against the baize of a pool table? The assault is there in Moore’s book, one panel of which homes in on the blood that leaps from her punched mouth, but the pool table is Snyder’s own embroidery.


[N]either author nor director has much grasp of what genuine, unhyped suffering might be like, or what pity should attend it; they are too busy fussing over the fate of the human race—a sure sign of metaphysical vulgarity—to be bothered with lesser plights.

To dwell any longer on why this is gross would be to grant it too much power.

open caption – whose turn is it to pleasure Miss Jupiter?

March 19, 2009
I like how the "real" Dr. Manhattan's head is cocked slightly to one side.

I like how the "real" Dr. Manhattan's head is cocked slightly to one side. Seriously, he's gross.