Sunday, June 11, 2017

An Oft Neglected Blog

The last time that I posted anything to this blog, Barack Obama was still the president of the United States. That was only a few short months ago, although it seems like the longest few short months in the history of the republic. While I don’t think I can directly blame the current administration (or lack thereof) for my inactivity, watching your own civilization teeter toward self-immolation certainly doesn’t inspire great bouts of creativity. Or perhaps it should. Great art often comes from dark times. 

Blogging, of course, as a thing, has become somewhat passé. Facebook displaced much of the social functioning of blogs; and Microblogging through Twitter, and photo and video blogging through Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube meet most internet users online sharing needs. But there is something to be said for the length of expression allowed by blogging, the capacity to write more than a few words about any given topic. The key is having something to say, and to say it regularly enough to keep the blog’s readers interested.

Of course, I have never been that consistent a blogger. Some months I might make two or three posts. Other months, or block of months, I might post absolutely nothing at all. I don’t know that in the future I will do that much better, but however long the bouts of silence, I do plan to continue blogging here. Look for posts in July on villains in comic book movies, reviews of the latest seasons of Better Call Saul and Fargo, and maybe a new post on political institutions as portrayed in science fiction. Yeah, in July. Or August at the latest.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Movie Review: Hidden Figures

Of all the unsung heroes of America’s heroic efforts to win the space race in the 1960’s, few are as unsung as the African-American women who did the math that computers were not yet ready to do, calculating the trajectories and orbits of space capsules. With the publication of Margot Lee Shetterly's Hidden Figures, and now the release of Theodore Melfi’s eponymous film, the extraordinary story of the vital role these women played in launching American astronauts into orbit and toward the moon has finally been told.

Hidden Figures focuses on three of these women, each of whom would go on to long and distinguished careers with NASA, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a math prodigy from an early age, Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), an unrecognized supervisor who becomes a computer expert, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), a young woman with the then unheard of ambition (for an African American woman) to become an engineer. Of course, in addition to actually doing the hard work required to get these jobs done, these women had to deal with the racism and sexism that was still a pervasive feature of American society in the 60’s. Johnson is the primary protagonist, and we follow as she is assigned to a work group that is trying to calculate the trajectory that will allow John Glenn to become the first American to orbit the Earth. Working with a group of people who barely recognize her existence, she manages to create the math that allows Glenn to succeed.

Hidden Figures has a rather light tone, which works well in telling a story about the triumph of intellect and hard work over prejudice, and highlighting the absurdity of rules that segregated restrooms and coffeepots. The performances are in line with the tone, but uniformly excellent. The leads have great chemistry, and Kevin Coster, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons and Mahershala Ali all excel in supporting roles. Although never heavy handed, Hidden Figures deals honestly with the American legacy of racism and oppression, and shows how talented and capable individuals overcame that legacy to achieve great things. A-

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Starship of State: Governing the Future: Introduction

Politics in Pop Culture Science Fiction

Death and taxes. According to the old saying there are few things as certain as death and taxes. The first represents the inevitably of mortality, that all living things die. The second represents the inevitability of government, that all societies larger than a few individuals require some kind of order. In early hunter-gatherer tribes, it may have amounted to no more than a certain fluid division of labor. Hunters hunt, gatherers gather, everyone contributes to the good of the tribe. As societies grew more complex, so did the institutions required to govern them, giving rise to tribal confederations, city-states, empires, nations and republics. These units of organization require citizens to contribute something to the common good, usually through taxes, to keep society functioning. If they fail, the result is a state of anarchy that may be more taxing than the taxes were.

In fiction, death is often the focus of the plot. Literary works often use the stress of death to wring emotion out of characters, and some story genres, such as thrillers and mysteries, often start with the death of a character or require the threat of death as the primary source of tension. Certainly, there are genres and subgenres of fiction that also deal with taxes, and the governments that collect them. The police detective in the mystery novel is paid by a municipal government to investigate crimes and enforce laws. The spy in the thriller can waste tons of tax revenues on fancy machinegun-armed sports cars. The stoplight in the romance novel that makes the heiress late for her yoga lesson was presumably bought with somebody’s tax dollars. You can’t build a Death Star if you don’t have the money, and the organizational skills, to do so. So even in fictions where these institutions do not play a vital role, plausibility suggests that they are a vital part of the underlying society that the characters live in.

In science fiction, writers and film producers have the luxury of reimagining these institutions. The fantastic settings allow them to have characters that live under governments totally different from those that exist in the real world, either currently or historically. Of course, some stories are more dependent on these details than others. The Empire was vital to George’s Lucas’ Star Wars saga, since it was the rebellion against the imperial government, and the struggle to destroy its Death Star, that propelled so much of the story. The Federation featured in Star Trek may be more in the background, but regulations such as the Prime Directive reveal things about the political foundations of that society. And though the platoon of marines we see in Aliens suggest the presence of a government institution, the influence wielded by Burke and his ilk suggest the true power may be vested in a corporate oligarchy. Each of these film/television series, and a dozen others that have been created in the last 50 years, have made predictions about how the future (or in Star Wars case a long time ago) would be governed.

To many people the subject of politics can be deadly dull. They are happy to ignore all of the invisible work done by governments to support their daily lives, or to complain about the taxes they have to pay to support that work, but they are in no way interested in the minutiae of political or government activity. For these people, the series of blog posts I’m planning on the politics of the future, exploring the governing systems described in pop culture science fiction may not be that interesting. Showing senatorial trade route debates in the prequel episodes of the Star Wars saga was not well received by fans or critics. But if the political aspects of science fiction world building interest you, I will be posting at least seven or eight of these essays on the politics and government of the fictional future, exploring everything from Star Wars’ Republic and Empire to the feudal system seen in Dune. How do these institutions work? How do they compare with real-world equivalent systems? What are creators and producers trying to say with their portrait of governance? These are some of the questions I will explore over the next few weeks.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Movie Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

With the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the third coming of the Star Wars saga has broken the prequel curse placed on the franchise by creator George Lucas. And although none of the marketing for this movie ever used the P-word to describe it, the chronological setting, in advance of the events of the original Star Wars (later subtitled A New Hope), does indeed make the film a prequel. While this film does not reclaim the high-water mark Star Wars established with The Empire Strikes Back, it does prove that the new crop of producers are not likely to sink to the depths of Episodes One through Three.

Rogue One is the story of a McGuffin, those original Death Star plans that Princess Leia sent down to Tatooine inside the memory banks of R2D2 at the beginning of Star Wars, an event that pulled a farm boy named Luke and a retired Jedi named Obi Wan into the rebellion against the evil Galactic Empire. This film tells the story of how those plans were stolen in the first place. Jyn Erso (Felicty Jones), a criminal of some sort who was separated from her parents at a young age (when her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), was forcefully recruited into the Empire’s Death Star project), is sprung from an imperial prison by the rebels and recruited into a mission to find her father. The rebels want some information on a rumored new super-weapon that the Empire is about to deploy. Some of them also want Galen dead for his role in the development of this weapon, but they don’t tell Jyn that. The path to the plans lead through a rebel extremist (and Jyn’s former guardian) named Saw Gerrara (Forest Whitaker), a rain soaked Imperial Base, and finally a planet that looks like Hawaii. We know somewhat how the story will end, because Star Wars.

Rogue One has the redeeming quality of being fairly smart for a Star Wars movie, much smarter than last year’s The Force Awakens, which treated the concepts of both space and time with singular contempt. Sure, it is still a space fantasy, but at least it all makes sense within the context of the Star Wars universe. Rogue One focuses more on the war aspect of Star Wars, and features harrowing sequences of ground, air, and space combat. The film introduces us to a whole cast of new characters, but fails to develop them significantly. For all of the dumbness and repetition, at least The Force Awakens had heart. There is a lot of fan service in Rogue One, and some of it may be pointless, but it wouldn’t have been a problem if the characters had been developed better. But for anyone who is a fan of the series, or just enjoys a good science fiction adventure, Rogue One provides plenty of entertainment. B

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Wright Brothers: Book Review

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough, tells the story of Orville and Wilbur Wright, aviation pioneers who solved the puzzle of powered flight and changed the world forever. McCullough, best known for his lengthy biographies John Adams and Truman, delivers a briefer book to tell the story of the Wright Brothers, but it is no less compelling or lacking in the detail one has come to expect from his works.

The Wright Brothers provides the obligatory look at the Wright’s early life in Dayton, Ohio, introducing the reader to their family, including a mother who died young, their father, Bishop Milton Wright, and their sister, Katherine. The book also briefly covers their entrepreneurial efforts, the bicycle repair and manufacturing shop that helped pay for their aviation experiments, but focuses mainly on their efforts to design and build a flying machine. The Wright’s were meticulous experimenters, working with gliders at Dayton and later at Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was at Kitty Hawk that they would achieve their goal, powered flight, but the story didn’t end there. Skepticism that the Wrights had accomplished anything at Kitty Hawk followed them for many years, but they knew they had to perfect their techniques and engineering. They were unwilling to rush through their experiments, and eventually their patience and attention to detail paid off. Their demonstration flights in France and Fort Meyer, Virginia became the stuff of legend. 

Like his books on Truman and Adams, McCullough has again produced the definitive biography of his chosen subject, providing a well-researched and informative history of the birth of powered flight and the men who perfected it. The Wright Brothers tells an inspiring story of the triumph of American ingenuity.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Where Everyone Has Gone Before

Much in the same way that Star Trek Into Darkness lacked any genuine darkness, so does the latest film in the rebooted Star Trek franchise fail to live up to its title. There is little new, or original, or beyond in Star Trek Beyond, but it does have the saving grace of not being quite as stupid as its predecessor. It also manages to have moments that are truer to the heart of the original Star Trek series than any in the two previous films. But while these moments are evocative of the original, they also lack much in the way of originality.

Star Trek Beyond opens on an Enterprise three years into its five year mission, and like the prime universe James Kirk in the episode The Paradise Syndrome, NuKirk (Chris Pine) has grown a little weary of his mission, so much so that he is considering transferring to a vice-admiralty position on a shiny new star base called Yorktown. In a scene mirroring one in The Wrath Of Khan (a film that the new productions have been obsessive about restaging one scene at a time) Kirk and McCoy (Karl Urban) have a drink and discuss birthdays and career options. In the original Kirk was lamenting the promotion that had taken him out of the center seat, while in Beyond it’s the captaining he wishes to escape. The film might have broken new ground with the introduction of Sulu’s (John Cho) new status as a gay man, but for Star Trek, that was on the cutting edge of promoting tolerance and acceptance of different people all the way back in the 1960’s, this could qualify as a case of ‘too little, too late.’

Word of a ship in distress leads Kirk and the Enterprise crew through an uncharted nebula to the planet Altamid, where they are attacked by a swarm of small ships that quickly rip the Enterprise into pieces, leaving most of her crew dead or captured. Kirk reaches the surface with Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and the alien captain who had requested assistance, while Spock (Zachary Quinto) and McCoy crash a swarm ship they had appropriated into a different location. Scotty (Simon Pegg), the only other crew member not captured by the aliens, runs into an orphan/scavenger named Rey Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) who promises to help him locate the crew if he will assist her with some engineering problems. Sulu and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are prisoners of the alien antagonist, Krall (Idris Elba), who is looking for the component of an “ultimate” weapon that was stored on the Enterprise, and that Kirk was able to hide before leaving the ship.

The film follows each group as they overcome injuries and obstacles to reunite and figure out away to stop Krall. Quinto and Urban as Spock and McCoy prove the most adept at channeling the essence of the original characters. Jaylah leads Scotty to her home, the long lost Federation starship Franklin, which is repaired, and as the crew are reunited becomes a means of both escape and of thwarting Krall’s plans to use his new weapon against Yorktown. There are a ton of continuity problems with the Franklin that might annoy hardcore fans, but the real problem is how uninteresting the whole story is. There is a twist on Krall’s identity that doesn’t have much impact. His whole beef with the Federation is rather vague, and is not significantly clarified when we learn who he is. Elba does as much as he can with the part, but even with the twist there is not much to the role. Jaylah might have been a more interesting character if we’d not already seen an orphan scavenger with superior technical and fighting skills six months ago in another movie.

Of course by Hollywood Summer Tentpole Blockbuster logic the film has to end with massive property damage, this time inflicted upon the over-designed Federation Starbase Yorktown, the home to millions of beings. Yorktown looks very cool, but the station’s M. C. Escheresque design is neither practical nor likely possible. I won't spoil the resolution but nothing very original happens. Some of the visuals even reminded me of Guardians of the Galaxy. At the best it is all adequately entertaining if inevitably forgettable. But it was nice to see a glimpse of the old Star Trek again, even if for the most part it was buried under the layers of noise that pass for film making in Hollywood these days.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Alien Motivations

I finally got around to seeing Independence Day: Resurgence, the sequel no one asked for to Roland Emmerich’s 1996 alien invasion/catastrophe flick Independence Day. Emmerich is back as director, with Jeff Goldblum and other actors reprising roles they played in the original. It was nice to see Brent Spiner getting work again, but it was evident that Will Smith was wise to steer clear of this particular project. The film’s five writers did not generate an original or intelligent idea between them. Independence Day: Resurgence may be one of the stupidest movies ever made, but then stupid has never been a crime in Hollywood.

You don’t need to look far to find the stupid early in this film, but if you wait long enough you find out that the reason the aliens have returned and parked a 3,000-mile spaceship over the Atlantic basin is to drill a tiny little hole down through the layers of our planet to extract our molten core. Why they need a 3,000-mile spaceship to drill a single hole into a single spot along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is never explained, but we are told that they likely want to use the energy of our planetary core to power their spaceships and industry. While it was just generally stupid for them to have traveled across the universe to strip mine our planet of natural resources, the motivation given for the original invasion in ’96, coming all that way to use the core of the Earth as an energy source is a very specifically stupid thing to do.

Of course the core of the Earth has a great deal of energy, and even tapping into near surface level energies of the planet makes a lot of sense for those of us already living here. But the universe, the universe that these aliens traveled through at a great cost of energy and resources, is full of bright and shiny nuclear reactors called stars, the weakest of which generate many times the energy that you can find inside the Earth. And even if you are too stupid to figure out how to utilize that energy (not something likely in a species that has mastered interstellar travel) there are plenty of other places in the universe to find it. Gas giant planets like Jupiter generate enormous levels of energy. There is no deficiency of energy in the universe that would make coming to Earth to drill a tiny hole to tap our core a reasonable alternative.

But what about the original premise of the Independence Day franchise, that the aliens came to Earth to strip our planet of its natural resources. Again, the universe is a big damned place, full of rocks, gas, dust, asteroids, comets and uninhabited planets that are composed of the various naturally occurring elements that we find on Earth. Even the most rapacious consumers of these raw materials would find enough available within their own solar system, or nearby uninhabited systems to satiate their appetites. But even if they did decide to drop into our neighborhood looking for such resources, they could probably more easily mine them out of the asteroid belt, the planets Mars, Venus and Mercury, or the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, than they could from the Earth, a planet that has already been mined of much of its natural resources by the natives. Why bother with an invasion when you can take what you want without a fight?

Of course other fictional aliens have invaded Earth for other things, such as water, breeding stock and tasty, tasty humans. Water is again a relatively common material in the universe, and if you were coming to our solar system to find some you might try catching snowballs in the Oort cloud or draining the seas of Europa. And while Mars may need women and To Serve Man may be a cookbook, it is not likely that any aliens would be biochemically compatible enough with us to make either mating or digesting possible. It just wouldn’t work. So there really isn’t anything on Earth that is unique enough or useful enough to any alien species to justify an invasion. But who knows, if they’ve been getting old episodes of the Jerry Springer show they might just do so on principle.