Art is Action: Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest

One of the books that I picked up over the holidays as Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, which I’ve been reading in drips and drabs this month. It’s a really stunning work of fiction, and it’s a book that feels all the more relevant with what the Trump administration is shaping up for when it comes to policy, particularly around environmental areas.

Go read Art is Action: Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources cited:

  • Harlan Ellison, Again, Dangerous Visions. I have all three of these anthologies, and Le Guin has a short afterword to the story in my edition.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin, The Language of the Night. This is a collection of essays from Le Guin, and it includes her forward to the novella.
  • Larry McCaffrey, Across the Wounded Galaxies. Collection of interviews with authors, including Le Guin.
  • Frank Magill, Survey of Science Fiction vol 5. This collection of critical essays is pretty essential. There’s a review of this story in it by Gary K. Wolfe.

I’ve been lax about posting up updates for this column. Here’s a couple I missed:

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RIP Fionna

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The last of my childhood dogs passed away last night. Fionna had been sick for a while, but she’s lasted far longer than I think anyone had expected. Even as she grew thinner, she never seemed to lose her upbeat and perky nature.

Fionna was always my sister Keelia’s dog. She was a gift of sorts: we had one dog, but she had been asking for one. My mother put down a stipulation: any new dog that we get can’t be a long-haired, loud black dog. (Fionna’s predecessor Tilly was all of these things, and mom didn’t like the shedding). What we ended up with was … all of those things.

She was an anxious, shepherd-type dog, and gave our other dog, Buck (who died back in 2008) a bit of a new lease on life. She was energetic, clingy, and exceedingly attached to Keelia. She was playful, often tangling and chasing other dogs who came to visit – one memorable moment was when she snuck up behind Buck, grabbed a back leg and ran. We always imagined her with a high-pitched, somewhat squeaky voice.

She slowed down and greyed significantly in the last couple of years, and there was a health scare over a year ago with some sort of ear infection that left her with a tilted head (and the new nickname Lopsided Dog). But, each time we’ve gone to visit my parents, she’s been an ever-present shadow wagging her tail in greeting.

We didn’t have to put her down, although Mom and Dad were getting to that point. Up until a couple of days ago, she followed him down the driveway and back, even running a bit. We buried her in the front field of my parents’ house, next to where we buried Buck and Tilly all those years ago.

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She was a good dog, and I’m going to miss her terribly.

Sing, or a good example of studio interference

So, I go to more kids movies than I used to: my son is three and a half, and we’ve taken him to see a bunch of films in the movie theater. He sits (for the most part), and looks utterly adorable crunching a small bag of popcorn. There’s been some solid kids movies that we’ve gone to  – Moana and Zootopia, which are a good reminder of how kids movies can be smart and entertaining. We just went to see Sing, and while it was fun, it’s a good example of what not to do.

The premise of the film from the trailers: a koala named Buster Moon owns a theater that’s struggling, and to try and get things back on track, he decides to hold a singing competition. A typo on the flier shows off a $100,000 prize, and a ton of animals from around the city go out to audition and take part in the competition.

This is sort of where the film goes off the rails. For a film called Sing, there’s remarkably little of that. What’s there is good, and funny, but the film is loaded down with a whole bunch of side plots:

  • Buster is trying to get money to finance his prize, and to save his theater.
  • Johnny (a Gorilla) likes to sing, but his criminal father thinks its a waste of time.
  • Rosita (A pig housewife) enters because she feels unsatisfied being a housewife, and ignored by her husband.
  • Meena is a shy elephant who’s prodded into competing by her friends and family.
  • Ash, a porcupine, is the lesser half of a singing relationship.
  • Mike, a mouse, is arrogant and believes the prize is his, and gets into trouble with some Russian bears.
  • There’s a whole bunch of time spent on characters that don’t actually do anything: one is beaned on the head and leaves early in the film, while a couple of others leave.
  • Meanwhile, there’s some random hijinks as Buster is trying to get the competition on its way.

There’s a lot there, and it feels like a whole bunch of parts, such as Johnny’s father and Mike’s troubles, were stuck in there to put in some action and stakes. What it really does though, is take the stakes away from the focus of the film: saving the theater.

Spoilers: the theater isn’t saved about halfway through the film: it’s destroyed due to Mike’s greed, and repossessed by the bank. This happens about halfway to two thirds of the way through the film. It completely takes away any dramatic tension that the film was building to: the characters were working to win a competition that was essentially a sham. The end basically turns into a singing show for the joy of singing. That’s a fine goal, but not something that you should pivot to halfway through the film.

What this film lacks, and what a lot of stories don’t do, is focus on the end point. There’s plenty of material here for this film to work well on its own: a group of singing animals save their theater. Beginning to end, this would have been a great, heartwarming film to watch. Sing just has a ton of extra junk material injected into it. There’s good parts here: Meena’s story has a great ark, as dose Ash and Rosita. Johnny’s story could have been accomplished with a father who was essentially a blue collar worker. Mike could have been eliminated completely.

This is frustrating to see, because it feels like the solid story was there to begin with, but was chipped away by studio notes. We didn’t need a rooftop prison break chase scene here. We didn’t need a subplot with Russian mafia. It feels like these parts were added late in the game, with the assumption that it wouldn’t matter; it’s a kid’s movie. Kids like zany antics, so who cares?

Thinking about the stories that are important to me, many were ones that I consumed as a child or young adult. Many of these stories didn’t talk down to me as a child: they knew what a good story was and went with it. They weren’t necessarily chipped down to introduce characters for toys, or were designed essentially for marketing.

Compare this film to Moana, which came out earlier this winter. It’s an excellent story that really doesn’t pull punches. Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace recently wrote a good book called Creativity Inc, about Pixar’s approach to storytelling (and is a great look at how Disney has taken over Pixar’s ability to tell great stories – to the detriment of Pixar). What he writes boils down to: set up a solid story to start and make sure that it’s the best you can make it. The visuals, characters, and acting will all follow. It’s an approach that clearly works well for Moana, but it’s a lesson that Sing really missed.

It’s a shame, because the movie is cute and fun. It’s a ‘rent the movie from Redbox’ rather than ‘go out and experience it in a theater’.

Vick’s Vultures, by Scott Warren

I’m a sucker for durable space opera novels. I like crews on space ships flying around doing things in the vastness of space, and one of the books that I came across earlier this fall was Scott Warren’s new novel Vick’s Vultures.

The premise of the novel is pretty straightforward: humanity has entered a larger diaspora of galactic civilizations, and has been keeping its head down, for the most part. We realize we’re outgunned, and have been salvaging tech from other aliens to catch up. Vick’s crew on board the U.E. Condor have been doing just that, and rescue First Prince Tavram, heir to a massive empire. Another empire is after him, and they flee through space to get him home.

It’s a straightforward tale, and a nice diversion from some of the headier genre books out there. (The audio edition is also quite good). It’s fast and engaging, and it’s the type of book that falls neatly in line with the likes of John Scalzi or Marko Kloos. It’s not straight-up military science fiction, but there’s plenty of action and combat to keep you entertained.

 

Talk: J.R.R. Tolkien and World War I on October 31th!

I’ll be talking at Norwich University on Monday, October 31st at noon, about J.R.R. Tolkien’s experiences during World War I and how it impacted his works. I’ll be there along with Professor Gina Logan.

Here’s the description:

Please join us October 31st at noon at the Sullivan Museum and History Center for a presentation by adjunct English faculty Gina Logan and Andrew Liptak, (M’09) as they discuss the influence of Tolkien’s service in World War I on his life and writings including the portrayal of the conflict in the Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien’s description of Frodo and Sam’s journey through Mordor as a reflection of his memories of combat. Light Lunch served, free and open to the public.
 Should be a fun time!

Jerry Pournelle and the Personal Computer

There was a really cool article that came out in The Atlantic a while back about a book called Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum that raised an interesting question: who was the first author to write their novel on a personal computer?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is a science fiction author: Jerry Pournelle, who’s known for some of his military SF books and his fairly right-wing politics. Science Fiction authors were early adopters, which makes sense, given the field’s origins in tech reporting and promotion.

Kirschenbaum’s book is a really fascinating one: a crunchy, niche-y history of this weird, obscure topic that touches everyone. It’s one of those things that I’d never thought about, but it’s an interesting history.

Go read Jerry Pournelle and the Personal Computer over on Kirkus Reviews.

Gold, Kiiara

This is a song that’s been on rotation on my phone the last couple of weeks. It’s a cool song: I like the intro, and the overall groove to it. The entire EP, low kii savage, is also worth picking up.

Nightshades, by Melissa F. Olson


Nightshades was a book that I had placed on Gizmodo’s ‘Must Read’ list this summer, and it’s been one that I’ve had lingering on my to-read list since it’s come out. I picked it up between books, and it’s a fun vampire story that’s a solid, quick read.

This is a YAVN: Yet Another Vampire Novel, although it’s a short one. Vampires are out and about in Chicago, killing a whole bunch of people, which gets the FBI involved. One of the new agents is Alex McKenna, and he is placed in charge of the Bureau of Paranormal Investigations in the city after several fellow agents are killed.

This is the type of book that is quite a bit of fun, even as just about every element is made of recycled materials. It’s like a fun cross of Underworld, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, and maybe a bit of True Blood. That’s okay: it’s a book that’s a perfect sort of beach read, or a quick book to pick up if you’re traveling or reading on the go.

This is one of Tor.com’s latest offerings, and the short size is a neat feature for most of the books that they’re putting out. There’s some bugs along with this feature, though: the short stories sort of rely on the idea that the author has a much bigger world going on behind the scenes, and that these stories are discrete episodes that pop up. (Fran Wilde’s Jewel and her Lapidary has the same issue). Nightshades moves at a fast pace, and as a result, there’s a whole bunch of character things that happen far too quickly: one character locates a shade (Vampire) rather quickly, and convinces her to help out just as fast. There’s some other things like this that happen, and the ending of the book definitely makes this feel as though it’s designed around a pilot episode of a television show, with no word on whether or not it’ll be picked up.

That’s okay by me. It’ll be interesting to see just how Tor.com works with these authors and shorter works: I’m guessing that we’ll see hugely successful ones get picked up for new installments, which could make the publisher a fairly unique offering when it comes to storytelling: longer-form stories, but not quite serials.

Even if it’s not the most original novel out there, Nightshades is entertaining. Olson sinks nicely into her world with a fun story. Hopefully, there’ll be more to come before too much longer.

Vermont’s Green Mountain Squad

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Let me tell you about one person: Scott Allen.

When I was in High School, I was obsessed with Star Wars. I’d read the books, watched the movies, and chatted about everything on internet forums such as the TheForce.net’s Jedi Council Forums. It wasn’t long before that interaction wasn’t enough: I needed more.

Throughout my time at Harwood Union High School, I’d pestered our band director to play the music from Star Wars. Poor Mr. Rivers put up with six years of me constantly asking, and eventually caved: the last concert that I played in, we played a selection of the music. That should of been enough, but we needed to do more: I invited the 501st Legion to come play.

This was 2003, and the group was much smaller then. I had found out about this amazing organization through pictures in Star Wars Insider, and figured that they might send someone up. To my surprise, one of them did: Scott. He drove up from Rhode Island, suited up and took part in the concert, marching down one of the central aisles. The crowd went nuts. I also knew what I wanted to do next: get one of my own.

Scott ended up selling me a suit of armor: a pre-trimmed FX kit that came with everything. I wasn’t really aware of any presence in Vermont, although there were a couple of members. I trooped in public a couple of times, at Halloween. At college, I was the guy with the storm trooper suit. I attended Celebration 3, meeting other members of the group for the first time.

When I left college, the 501st turned out to be the perfect hobby for someone with a bit of disposable income and plenty of time on the weekends. I began making the long drive down every couple of weekends to anything I could get time to do: conventions, bookstore events, even escorted Snoop Dogg once in Times Square. I bought a Clone Trooper, and assembled it in my apartment.

There weren’t many of my friends who were interested in the group, however. My friend Mike joined up, and we trooped together before he moved away. Then I found my friend Lara, and eventually convinced her to join. We got Dave to come out of retirement and join us. Another trooper joined us, then another, over the years. We trooped a bunch of things in Vermont, anything to establish a basic presence in the state. We dreamed of putting together a proper squad, so that we’d have a good, permanent presence in the state. I tracked recruits and followed up with people: more often than not, they didn’t come through.

Then last year, we had a flood. We set up a booth at Vermont Comic Con, and got a long list of names: people who were genuinely interested. We did a group build; six boxes of Stormtrooper armor arrived at my house one day. I set up a Facebook group, e-mailed everyone on my list. By December, we had 10 people, and appeared at the first screening of The Force Awakens and blew everyone away.

And now, we just got word that our unit is now approved: the Green Mountain Squad is now, after so many miles, e-mails, chats and armor building sessions. It’s more than just a unit: it’s a community of like-minded people who share an interest in Star Wars, for sure, but who have bought in to the ideals of the 501st Legion: giving back to the community. I’m proud of the group that’s come together: it’s like finding friends who you knew were out there, but hadn’t come across yet.

All of that comes down to Scott, who made that massive drive from Rhode Island, just to make a high school band concert the best that it could be.

I can’t wait to see what we do next: I think that the best is yet to come.

To Boldly Imagine: Star Trek’s Half Century

Star Trek is one of those franchises that I’ve only dipped into occasionally: I never watched much of the shows, and I was more of a Babylon 5Stargate SG-1 and Battlestar Galactica fan in college.

That said, Star Trek was a huge, enormous influence on every aspect of science fiction, introducing millions of non-readers to what had largely been a closed community of readers. Part of its success here was that it pulled in some of the best writers of the time to help create the show, such as Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon. Without those influences, Star Trek might not have been the influence that it was.

Go read To Boldly Imagine: Star Trek’s Half Century over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • The Fifty-Year Mission: The First 25 Years, edited by Edward Gross & Mark A. Altman. This is the first of two volumes, an oral history of the entire Star Trek franchise. It’s a pretty amazing couple of volumes. The editors let every party speak for themselves, and it’s like a fantastic documentary for the history of Star Trek.
  • Age of Wonders: Exploring the World of Science Fiction, David Hartwell. Hartwell has some good points about how Star Trek fit in with ‘traditional’ fandom.
  • The Cambridge Companion to American Science, edited by Eric Carl Link and Gerry Canavan. I recently picked this book up, and it has some great insights into the relationship between Trek and Fandom.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts. Roberts makes a couple of excellent points here: namely that Star Trek was responsible for bringing more women into genre fandom.