Dead Man’s Chest

The Guardian, an otherwise cheeky publication, should fire its film critic for the review of Dead Man’s Chest. I thought maintaining a blog was borderline masturbatory until I read that piece and all of the others that have poo-pahed the sequel in the last week – all in all, they’re just a gaggle of excessively cheap shots. Worthy of contempt, but not rebuttal. This series has a good, soild Indiana Jones-ish aura about it that is refreshingly self-deprecating – a hard-too-detect quality for the snooty.

I like fun movies, and especially fun movies that reference the old Monkey Island PC games. Davy Jones and Barbossa are LeChuck, the voodoo lady, the key in the captain’s cabin, the coffin, etc, etc. Then again, the game was based on the ride, and the movie references the game, creating what in academia would probably be called “rich thematic intertextuality” or something equally pretentious. I appreciated it nonetheless.

Deus Irae

I couldn’t quite get to sleep last night again, so I sampled my giant to-read pile of books and quickly finished off Phillip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny’s Deus Irae. I had tried reading it when I was 18 or so and I found it difficult; this time, at 31, it was a different story.

Now it’s no secret that Zelazny is my favorite writer, and I have a great fondness for Phillip Dick as well, as the first novel I can remember reading was his Eye in the Sky, a tight little mind-adventure. But did they work well together? Maybe.

It’s pretty easy to see where one stops and the other begins. When it rambles at length alternately between brilliance and inaneness with a stress on drug use and altered consciousness, it’s Dick; when it turns to rapid-fire dialogue and action-heavy scenes with generous doses of high-level theology and wit, it’s Zelazny. Apparently this book was intially a sketch that Dick could not finish, and thus he turned to RZ, who was fresh from the incredible, tone-perfect Lord of Light.

The result? It’s like watching paint dry with Michelangelo and Da Vinci after you got them both stinking, falling-down drunk and asked them both to paint God; a thoughtful and at times hilarious experience.

In a post-WWIII apocalypse, a mutated, limbless artist, Tibor, is commissioned to paint a mural of the God of Wrath (hence the title, Deus Irae), a fellow who is singlehandedly responsible for the war, the death of billions, and the bleak, fractured societies that remain. Worship of this God of Wrath has eclipsed Christianity and reduced it to a minor religion. To get a decent likeness, Tibor has to find the actual man, who has slipped into obscurity. A bizarre pilgrimage results, where various theological issues are examined in a reasonably thoughtful way without being simple retreads of Aquinas.

Superficially, it resembles A Canticle for Leibowitz, but that book, as I recall, was concerned more about the fate and nature of man rather than the nature of God and whether he should be worshipped – especially if his actions, or that of an adversary that is in nominal control, are destructive. This particular cat is let out of the bag a little too quick for my taste, as there is nearly a OT vs. NT seminar on p. 28, but that’s ok. RZ and PKD do what must be done with such questions – leave them unanswered but throughly exercised. I was actually quite pleased at the end. Yay.

The Little Black Box

This is a bit of a rant. I may edit it a little over the next day or so.

In the last year or so, I’ve been thinking we’re both in a golden age of TV drama and a serious pig trough in film.

HBO has put out a tremendous amount of great serialized stuff in the last decade – The Sopranos, Carnivale, Deadwood, Rome, Big Love, etc – that is unequalled in quality. And as for my more esoteric needs, SciFi has brought back Battlestar Galactica in a vastly improved form, and the BBC has even resurrected (well, regenerated) the venerable Doctor Who. And there’s always Lost. It is a happy time for tube addicts. Not if they would only bring back Equalizer, I’d be set.

I can’t think of a really great recent film, though, in the same period. I’ve come to view the silver screen as shtock. Admittedly, I do have a preference for long, serialized stories, and I carry the heavy bias of a ex-film student who knows the classics, but the only movie that I can think of post-2000 that’s an absolute must-see would be Shaun of the Dead.

And that’s really unusual. I have tons of great movies on hand to watch, but when I think of modern quality cinema, I think HBO.

This leads me to the following conclusion; when I see Apple bantering with Hollywood to offer movies for $9.99 downloads, I wonder if films are in trouble.

Now Marconi’s radio has survived the advance of TV, VCRs, cable, and the internet, so I don’t think theaters are in any immediate danger – huge box offices are still quite doable. In particular, the new Superman flick looks like it’s going to print its own money.

But I think there’s going to be an inevtiable moment of critical mass with digitized media when it all escapes the control of not only its creators, but its distributors. This moment will occur when two conditions are satisfied: 1) the divide between speed/bandwidth and anonymity is resolved in P2P networking; and 2) when filesharing becomes user-friendly to the point that anyone can do it (in other words, when it filters out the good files from the bad sufficiently).

Those are really the only roadblocks. Forget legal issues. If everyone had a little black box in their den where they could browse for whatever media they wanted and have it delivered lightning-fast, with complete anonymity, no cost, and with a robust software and hardware package that could handle any file type and media known to man without exploding in typical Windows fashion, then all the copyright issues and debates I’ve heard and read in the last six or seven years would become completely moot, because no copyright law would be enforceable without making digital communication illegal.

That little black box is what filesharing (and to a certain extent, Google and Microsoft) is slowly and logically moving toward. Content by itself would become essentially worthless, as all creative content – film, TV, music, books, whatnot – would be created, stored, distributed through this one system.

Indeed, all content would be eventually be accessible, the good and the bad. You could watch every movie from 1920 on, but also view every bit of porn ever shot since the same year. And the little black boxes’ owners would be unable to tell what you were watching on an individual basis – though they could get a good measure of the popularity of any given bit of media, just as you could.

Alas, the people physically controlling the network would be the only people capable of making money, by charging for access. And they wouldn’t be able to keep up a profit on just a dream archive – they would need fresh content, constantly – the kind of big budget stuff we’re used to seeing coming out of capitalism. Plenty of small independent stuff would appear, like it does on the web these days, but big projects, like with Hollywood and the networks today, could come only the little black box’s masters – an even more consolidated power structure than entertainment is today.

Only a super-corporation could really pull it off running such an arrangement; an organization capable of contracting any kind of fresh content needed. Chain bookstores, theatres, and music stores, would all be swept into its gaping maw. It might develop into a set of channels, as a lot of people like pre-structured entertainment delivered to them in neat chunks. This is how the web works much of the time, with its portals, but it can also be surfed footloose – a talent that the little black box would need, one way or other…

..because a free, unrestricted, anonymous P2P system in the form of a household appliance would need the most elaborate filtering imaginable. It would more or less need a sentient A.I. to run decently. Think of the amount of data it would have to sort. While some people are good at searching – Google has helped the handicapped – most aren’t, and the system would have to either dumb the results down or offer a poor selection.

Whether we end up in copyright’s version of Blade Runner or not, however, I’m mostly interested in the research aspects. I hate hunting down sources for my research papers. I’m reasonably good at finding even obscure references, but I’d prefer a ironclad system that could tell me, accurately, of every scrap of paper that ever mentioned a certain subject or concept – and if they said anything interesting or original about it. The various scholarly databases are wonderful, but they’re all tightly guarded provinces like Dante’s circles of hell, with demons guarding the passages between. I have to search them all, wondering at the quality of each search, instead of just going to one reliable place. It’s no wonder JSTOR is so popular.


Working my way through the pile of sci-fi paperbacks my father occasionally hands me after digesting them himself, I’ve finished S.M. Stirling’s Conquistador.

As the first work of fiction I’ve read since reading Booth’s book on the rhetoric of fiction, it served to make me more aware of the genre conventions of alternate-Earth sci-fi than ever, though there are some interesting differences. When I think of alt-Earth, I think of Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South first; a great book that makes more than one appearance in this one (Andres Rhoodie and his errant band of South Africian mercs make a cameo, and the book is on the reading list of two characters).

Stirling’s novel is about an alternate-North America (in particular, California) where Europeans never showed up. An enterprising WWII vet in 1945 discovers a two-way door to this happy hunting ground in his Oakland basement, and builds an precious-minerals empire on his side and a new civilization on the other. That’s the background; a Game and Fish warden stumbles onto his setup during a bust in 2009, which forms the main storyline. It’s a fun little ride.

But Stirling has a different style altogether than Turtledove. GOTS was a more serious book with lit pretensions and telling questions. Stirling mainly has a gift for description – not short description, alas, as half of the 596 pages of this small-print book are devoted to landscape labeling. I can’t say he doesn’t know what California looks like; but I’m not sure the book does more than describe California and provide an entertaining, action-filled plot. It does have a nice structure, though; the story sprawls across time, moving between 1945 to 2009 in thematic rather than chronological order; the main story is in 2009 but frequent flashbacks grant background.

Whereas Turtledove escaped the usual characterization problems of scifi by using mostly historical characters – his Lee and Lincoln are biography-worthy in particular – Stirling creates Californian versions of superheroes. This bugged me. Not two pages in did I realize CA’s current governor would be a shoe-in for the main character. He’s even got a sidekick – who probably would have made a better protagonist, come to think of it. And the love interest – while we’re going through the screenplay slots – is equally disturbing. Adam and Eve romping in Eden got tiring after a bit; it can get boring fast to read about characters that have no real weaknesses or faults.

The book escapes this flaw partially, though, by making the society in this alt-California a problematic one. It’s a neofeudal agrarian paradise with bickering, mob-flavored dynasties, overseen by an aging dictator; in other words, essentially the same politics as your average fantasy novel. The main character debates a bit over which world is best (his 2009 is smoggy and post-Iraq) but is easily distracted by the clean, pollution-free (and mostly Indian-free, victims of smallpox again) landscape, the intrigues trying to kill him, the joys of heavy weaponry and big game hunting, and the kind of incredible, mind-numbing sex that only happens in between paragraphs. You can guess which world he ends up staying in.

Rhetorically, the book feels like an argument for environmental conservatives and a blend of feudalism and libertarian thinking, delivered with a wink, enough melodrama and bloodshed to satisfy all but the most thirsty, and several 55-gallon drums of salt.

Catching up, Part II

It occurs to me that my “Catching Up” earlier was entirely academic and job-related. I should fill in some of the remaining personal blanks.

I’m still with H, and I mean “still” in its positive, amazing sense.

My birthday is in a few days. I’ll be 31, which is incredible. I feel more like 23.

The post-semester break has allowed me to catch up on PC gaming. I played Oblivion through (very good and very long), Godfather: The Game (more amusing than good) and Hitman: Blood Money (excellent, the best of the series). Right now I’m playing with Rise of Legends a little, though it’s hard for an RTS to keep my attention very long. The monster computer I built over the Xmas break (so Oblivion and FEAR would be playable) has run like a top, especially after I put a Zalman cooler in.

H and I have been catching up on TV, too. We’ve watched all of Twin Peaks and kept up with the new Doctor Who. I think Tennant makes a fine Doctor; he’s not in Baker’s class, but he’s up there. I’m also finally up to date on all the HBO series I like – I’ve seen all the Sopranos, Deadwood, Rome, and Carnivale. I’ve spent some time in the boards analyzing this last Sopranos season – I think it was brilliant, which appears to be a minority opinion. Perhaps I will write something up about that.

I also hit the comics again. I read all of The Invisibles, a really fine if quirky British comic, got caught up with Powers, and noticed there is still no Ultimates #11. Sigh.

I’ve restarted Novel #2 again. It’s better than before and the story seems alive once more. I’ve restarted it a billion times, of course, and I keep changing major things. You’d think after six years I’d have a better idea of major plot points, but it has a mind of its own. I think it may be that I’m trying to write a story that is inherently episodic in the form of a novel. The resulting fit is poor. At least I know I’m fully capable of writing a long-winded book.