Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Micro Review [film]: Hausu

The Meat

Sometimes it's possible to have high expectations for something, and then feel a little disappointed when you experience it and discover it was exactly what you expected. It didn't have that little extra tweak that puts you just enough off-balance to get swept away. That's how I feel about the 1977 Japanese horror movie Hausu. It's the story of a group of schoolgirls who decide to spend their vacation at their friend's aunt's house. The girls all have names like Gorgeous (or Angel), Sweet, Kung Fu, etc., based on their personalities, and the aunt may or may not be dead, or a witch, or a cannibal, or all of the above, or she may just be a manifestation of the evil house. It's not important. And also, I think someone turns into bananas at some point.

This movie is totally bonkers, and from the very first shot - which is super cool - probably very different from anything else you've ever seen. It delivers on the promise of the genre, if the genre is "insane Japanese haunted house slasher movie," but it reaches its peak of weirdness early, and plateaus, which is kinda too bad. It's definitely worth a look, though, and if you're hoping for a big, climactic bloodbath, boy are you going to get your wish.

The Math

Objective Quality: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for its early mix of horror and comedy; +1 for the fact that the director also made this utterly amazing commercial with Charles Bronson:

Penalties: -1 for brief but squirm-inducing, not-sure-if-she's-18 nudity

Cult Coefficient Value: 7/10

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Beachfront Property on the Sea of Tranquility

En route to the Moon as we speak
Digitaltimes has an article today about how NASA wants commercial space ventures to respect the Apollo landing sites. That's well and good, but I think this is actually the big news:
“NASA recognizes that many spacefaring nations and commercial entities are on the verge of landing spacecraft on the moon,” the agency explained in a statement, adding that it had “engaged in a cooperative dialogue with the X Prize Foundation and the Google Lunar X Prize teams to develop the recommendations, and that all parties “share a common interest in preserving humanity’s first steps on another celestial body and protecting ongoing science from the potentially damaging effects of nearby landers.”
Wait...what? Last I heard, returning to the Moon was a crackpot idea Newt Gingrich floated during his failed presidntial campaign. Not that I'm against it...anything but; I just didn't realize it was serious and imminent enough for NASA to release this hefty, 93-page report expressing its concern that the coming Moon-rush not build casinos on historical sites.

Turns out, the X Prize people are on their way--and given the success commercial space ventures have had so far, I wouldn't doubt them. But for now, the ventures are distinctly robotic in nature.
Your potential new neighbor

Guess I can hold off on those beach house designs...for now.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Let's All Move to Mars!

A likely sight on Mars in the near future
This just in:
New evidence from meteorites suggests that the basic building blocks of life are present on Mars. The study found that carbon present in 10 meteorites, spanning more than four billion years of Martian history, came from the planet and was not the result of contamination on Earth.
A team of scientists based at the Carnegie Institution for Science, based in Washington DC, found "reduced carbon" in the meteorites and says it was created by volcanic activity on Mars.
"This research shows, yes - it does exist on Mars and now we are moving to the next set of questions. What happened to it, what was its fate, did it take the next step of creating life on Mars?"
But before you get your Xenobiologist certification and $1000 camera, you should know this doesn't mean we're going to find any little green men/women:
In a separate but related paper, Steele also reports on the Allan Hills meteorite, which was once thought to contain fossil evidence of Martian microbial life. The meteorite, named for the site where it was found in Antarctica, is thought to be 4.1 billion years old. Back in 1996, a team of scientists at NASA and other institutions claimed it contained evidence of ancient microbial life, because it contains a unique pattern of organic carbon compounds. But Steele’s studies say that this, too, is not biologically based — rather, the chemical reactions involve the graphite form of carbon. That paper appears in American Mineralogist. 
While it may seem disappointing to confirm that Mars is a native organic chemistry lab, this is useful information for future Martian life hunters. Scientists will be able to use these studies to compare and contrast carbon-bearing formations and determine whether they’re of abiotic or biological origin. The meteorite paper appears today in Science Express. 
Sorry...I know, the picture lied...

[If you have academic access, you can read the full article in Science here.]

Friday, May 25, 2012

Six Seasons of Lost, in Haiku Form

Season 1:

Plane crashed, now we're stuck,
On this weird desert island.
Scared by smoke monster.

Robbed at the Emmys

Season 2:

The Others took Walt,
But something's inside this hatch!
Now must push button...

Season 3:

The Others sure suck
Are they Dharma? It's not clear.
Don't trust Penny's boat.

Capture leads to malnutrition/cat grammar

Season 4:

Now scary mercs are here.
Let's just move the damn island.
Jack and others leave.

Season 5:

Okay, wait, what's this?
It's about time-travel now.
And Locke isn't Locke.

Evil Locke cavorts on beach

Season 6:

Let's tie the loose ends
Good versus evil, but wait...
Were they all dead the whole time?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


In the first of our contributor profiles, we catch up with Vance--writer, musician and walking cult film encyclopedia. You can check out his band, Sci-Fi Romance here

NAME: Vance Kotrla

SECRET UNDISCLOSED LOCATION: Los Angeles, on a hill between a 7-11 and a music store

NERD SPECIALIZATION(S): Cult movies, 50s sci-fi, horror

MY PET PEEVES IN NERD-DOM ARE: The weird beef between Star Wars and Star Trek fans. Can't we just all agree that Shatner's a blowhard and Lucas is nuts and enjoy our sci-fi together with locked arms and Cheetos-fingers?

VAMPIRES, WEREWOLVES, ZOMBIES, ALIENS OR ROBOTS: Jeez. Ten years ago, vampires. But if I had to face a plague of one of the above, give me zombies and a hammer.

RIGHT NOW I'M READING: Swann's Way (Proust), ESPN: Those Guys Have all the Fun (Miller & Shales)

...AND A COUPLE BOOKS I RECENTLY FINISHED ARE: The Monk (Matthew Lewis), Steel-Drivin' Man (Scott Reynolds Nelson)

NEXT TWO ON QUEUE ARE: The Crying of Lot 49 (Pynchon, re-read), Cat's Cradle (Vonnegut, re-read)

MY FAVORITE SUPERHERO AND SUPER-VILLAIN ARE: Batman, The Brain (lab mouse bent on world domination)

IF I WERE A SUPERHERO/VILLAIN, MY POWER WOULD BE: Unlimited financial resources, a company with defense contracts, and a lack of moral ambiguity. (see Batman, above)





EVERYONE SHOULD SEE [FILM Z] BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE: Too late for what? Armageddon? Then THE THIRD MAN. Before it leaves theaters? Then, whatever. I have kids, movie theaters are now alien to me.


WORSE ENDING--LOST OR BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: I have kids, long-running, complex TV shows are alien to me.



Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Microreview [book]: The Player of Games

The Meat

The Culture is a society without scarcity, expertly managed by hyper-intelligent AI (Minds) and populated by both long-living and biologically advanced humans and other sentient AI (ships and drones). The humans are ostensibly the center of things, but do the least of the heavy lifting, and spend most of their time living it up and having fun. There are no class divisions in the Culture, no racial injustice, no religious intolerance and--crucially--a fluid, changeable notion of gender and sexuality that obviates discrimination along those lines.

Clearly the Culture is Banks' utopia, a place without the problems that dog our own world. If that was all there was to it, though, these novels would be really boring. Thankfully, Banks has situated the Culture within a galaxy full of other societies, and his novels largely explore the interactions between the Culture and its neighbors, most of which can be described as "not good." Utopia though it may be, when the Culture gets involved in foreign entanglements, it looks awfully neo-colonial and paternalistic. This is, in the end, a direct result of the Culture's "superiority" over its neighbors, and Banks is a sophisticated enough writer to navigate us through the murky moral terrain this implies, offering more questions rather than neat, tidy answers.

THE PLAYER OF GAMES is the second installment in Iain M. Banks' culture series. It is not necessary to read the first, CONSIDER PHLEBAS, to enjoy this book. In fact, I'd actually recommend starting here, as THE PLAYER OF GAMES is a much better introduction to the series. Why? Here's why:

1. Readers get a clearer sense of what the Culture is, its internal social relations and how it deals with neighboring societies it deems "inferior."

2. The characters are fully-fleshed out, relatable and much more memorable.

3. The plot is actually quite simple, whereas in other Culture novels it tends to be complex bordering on opaque.

All of this will come to your aid when you read USE OF WEAPONS or EXCESSION, both of which are excellent books, but require a bit of background knowledge and contextualization to get through.

THE PLAYER OF GAMES centers on Jernau Morat Gurgeh, a champion game-player who has grown bored with his life of leisure. Enter Special Circumstances, one of the Culture's two clandestine services. Through some dirty tricks, they manage to recruit Gurgeh for a mission to the Empire of Azad, a highly stratified and downright oppressive society marked by extreme gender divisions. Why this particular playboy? Because social position and rank in the Empire are determined by the results of a grand contest, also called Azad. Special Circumstances figure Gurgeh might actually be able to win the game, and if so...well...I don't want to give up too much.

Bottom line is, this is about as good as the New Space Opera gets. I say "about" because USE OF WEAPONS is even better. But you should read this one first. It's well-crafted, well-written, memorable and thought-provoking--everything SF should be.

The Math

Objective Quality: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for OMG space opera that's well written; +1 for moral ambiguity that makes you think more deeply about your own world, and the way people act in it--rather than just conclude that everyone's an a**hole; +1 for quirky little bits of humor that never seen trite or distracting

Penalties: -1 for Banks' occasional need to remind us that Azad is really really bad and the Culture is really really good, which rein in the more complex questions of moral universalism vs. relativism; -1 for, along those lines, the lack of sympathetic characters among the Azadians.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10. "Very high quality/standout in its category."

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Nebula Award Winners

The Nebula Awards are given by the Science Fiction Writers of America for the best SF/F of the year. Over the years, they've done a pretty good job picking the best of the best, as this list of Nebula winners for best novel will attest.

Here are the winners for 2011:

Novel Winner: AMONG OTHERS, Jo Walton (Tor)

Verdict: UPSET. Nothing against this book, which by all accounts is very good, but China Mieville's EMBASSYTOWN had "gonna win everything this year" written all over it." (That, of course, doesn't mean it was the most deserving, just that it had the most buzz.)

Novella Winner: "The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” Kij Johnson (Asimov’s Science Fiction, October/November 2011)

Verdict: AS PREDICTED. Several good novellas were nominated this year, but Johnson's was the hands-on favorite.

Novelette Winner: ”What We Found,” Geoff Ryman (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September/October 2011)

Verdict: AS PREDICTED. I'd seen this as a toss-up with Jake Kerr's fantastic "What We Found," both of which had some buzz.

Short Story Winner: "The Paper Menagerie,” Ken Liu (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March/April 2011)

Verdict: AS PREDICTED. Another tossup, this time with E. Lily Yu's "The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees." Expect these two stories to split the major awards.

Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation Winner: Doctor Who: “The Doctor’s Wife,” Neil Gaiman (writer), Richard Clark (director) (BBC Wales)

Verdict: SEMI-UPSET. Neil Gaiman winning = not an upset. An episode of Doctor Who beating out a bunch of feature films = upset.

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Winner: The Freedom Maze, Delia Sherman (Big Mouth House)

Verdict: NOT UPSET, though not as predicted either. Translation: I didn't have a clear feeling about who would win this category before the awards were announced, so I can't say whether it surprised me or not!

The full list with nominees can be found here.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Micro Review [TV]: Community, Season 3

E. Pluribus Anus

The Meat

What do you say about a live-action cartoon that's been yanked back from the brink of cancellation at least twice by it's small (*real* small) but fiercely nerdy fan base, features an Oscar-winning writer dressed mostly in drag, and has gone down a rabbit hole of meta so dense that it's probably referencing pop culture that doesn't even exist yet? Welp, if you're me, I guess you say this:

Season 3 of NBC's Community represents two milestones in the series: 1) Making a final break with any sense that the show takes place in the same world in which the rest of us exist, and 2) The creative team shrugging their shoulders and saying "They're going to cancel us and probably not air all these episodes, anyway, so let's do every single damn thing we please. And then yell at Chevy Chase."

The results, then, are predictably uneven. Some of the best moments in an already fantastic show take place in Season 3 - the musical opening of the first episode that promised less weirdness, the creation of the Dr. Who analogue "Inspector Spacetime," the gang going 8-bit in "Digital Estate Planning," and every second of "Remedial Chaos Theory," which is possibly the best 21 minutes of a sitcom I've ever seen. But it got to the point where every episode was based around a gimmick. The conclusion of Troy and Abed's pillow-vs-blanket-fort conflict was a pitch-perfect parody of Ken Burns' Baseball and "Basic Lupine Urology" (Get it? Dick Wolf?) was a spot-on Law & Order send-up, but...what was the point? Dean Pelton's attempt to make a commercial for Greendale was a great hybrid of both Apocalypse Now and its making-of documentary Hearts of Darkness, which is no mean feat to do in 21 minutes, but all of these gimmicks take time away from the characters. "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" and "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" from Season 2 both bring the clever, but have honest emotional payoffs Season 3 mostly lacks.

I marveled at Creator/Executive Producer Dan Harmon and his team's technical mastery, but missed Troy, Abed, Jeff, Shirley, Annie, Pierce, and Britta in the process.

The Math

Objective Quality: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 for the darkest timeline; +1 for landing another 13 episodes next season.

Penalties: -1 for putting clever before characters; -1 for the start-stop nature of the Security Guard Chang season-long arc that disappeared for weeks at a time; -1 for the public meltdown between Dan Harmon and Chevy Chase, which cast a pall over the last several episodes and puts the future direction of the series in doubt.

Cult Coefficient Value: 8/10

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

Thursday, May 17, 2012

ALERT! We Can Now Control Robots With Our Minds

And it gets better...the subjects who did it are quadriplegics, individuals paralyzed from the neck down. From the NY Times:
Two people who are virtually paralyzed from the neck down have learned to manipulate a robotic arm with just their thoughts, using it to reach out and grab objects. One of them, a woman, was able to retrieve a bottle containing coffee and drink it from a straw — the first time she had served herself since her stroke 15 years earlier, scientists reported on Wednesday.
 Here's how they did it:
The two people in this study, a 58-year-old woman and a 66-year-old man, are quadriplegic, unable to use their limbs as a result of strokes years ago. Each had a tiny sensor about the size of a baby aspirin injected just below the skull, in an area of the motor cortex known to be active when people move their arms or hands. They learned to move a robotic arm, mounted at shoulder height on a dolly next to them, by watching the researchers move the arm and imagining they were actually controlling it.
The sensor — a chip of silicon with 96 pinprick electrodes connecting to a patch of neurons — transmitted those neurons’ firing patterns from this imaginary movement to a computer, through a wire. The computer recorded the patterns, then translated them into an electronic command: Move left, now down, now right. With a little training, the two participants took control of the arm. It was the first time the man had used a limb of any kind in three years, and the first time in 15 years for the woman. Both were able to move the robotic arm and hand skillfully enough to pick up foam objects.
See for yourself:

Now for the really good stuff: according to John Donaghue of Brown University, who is one of the co-authors of the study, this isn't just a one-off event:
“This paper reports an important advance by rigorously demonstrating in more than one participant that precise three-dimensional neural control of robot arms is not only possible, but also repeatable,” says Donoghue, who directs the Brown Institute for Brain Science.
“We’ve moved significantly closer to returning everyday functions, like serving yourself a sip of coffee, usually performed effortlessly by the arm and hand, for people who are unable to move their own limbs. We are also encouraged to see useful control more than five years after implant of the BrainGate array in one of our participants. This work is a critical step toward realizing the long-term goal of creating a neurotechnology that will restore movement, control, and independence to people with paralysis or limb loss.”
Here's a link to the original Nature article, which gets really technical, but adds a lot of color and detail to the narrative.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Micro Review [film]: Paul

The Meat

PAUL is a Simon Pegg/Nick Frost comedy in the vein of SHAUN OF THE DEAD or HOT FUZZ. This time, Pegg and Frost play a pair a scifi geeks on a road trip from ComicCon to Roswell and Area 51. Things take a turn when they encounter Paul, a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking alien (voiced by Seth Rogan) on the run from the men in black. Hijinks ensue.

PAUL is, at its core, more about male friendship than aliens, but it's also full of references to classic films like STAR WARS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and ET. It has a stellar cast--including Jason Bateman, Jane Lynch, Sigourney Weaver and Kristin Wiig--and is, in the end, a fun and surprisingly sweet film. On the flip side, Paul gets pretty annoying at times, there's a ponderous and condescending science vs. religion theme that could have been a lot more interesting than it was, and there are too many jokes based on someone erroneously thinking Pegg and Frost are gay. It was only kind of funny the first time; by the fourth and fifth time, it's gotten really tiresome.

All in all, PAUL is a fun and pretty funny movie. It's also the kind of nerdy film that you could get a non-nerd to watch and actually enjoy.

The Math

Objective Quality: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for the great cast; +1 an even better soundtrack; +1 for the loving and tasteful references to the science fiction films of the late 1970s/early 1980s

Penalties: -1 for going to the well too often with unfunny jokes; -1 for the fact that a few of the best songs are barely audible

Cult Film Coefficient: 7/10

Monday, May 14, 2012

12 Things We Hate in Films

We like films. We like films a lot. But there are a few things that filmmakers keep doing that annoy the hell out of us. So here's our list of pet peeves for you. Got something to add? Hit us up in the comments section below...

The G

1. CGI overdesign.

CGI has, in most ways, improved special effects in film--you can just compare SUPERMAN 2 to SPIDERMAN 2 to see that. The thing about CGI is, though, anything's possible, which means it's also possible to make things utterly ridiculous and impractical. That Romulan spaceship in STAR TREK is a good example of something that was ruined by CGI. Basically anything from TRANFORMERS as well.

"In the future, let's put a lot of pointy things on stuff"

2. Unnecessary voiceovers.

Voiceovers are the screenwriting equivalent of CGI overdesign: something unnecessary that almost always cheapens your film by making things too obvious and unsubtle. Sure there are some voiceovers that work; MY LIFE AS A DOG has a great one, but that's because it's abstract and poetic. Usually, voiceovers serve to simplify complex ideas so marketing executives can sleep easy, knowing their product has been rendered mediocre enough for a mainstream audience. The theatrical release of BLADE RUNNER is the most egregious and infamous example of this.

3. Cutesy/comic relief characters in non-cutesy/non-comedy films.

I can deal with a little comic relief, like R2D2 and C3PO bickering throughout STAR WARS. But as soon as you throw a minstrel-like buffoon on screen, or a little kid who can't act but has an "aw shucks" kind of face, you've lost me. This is a dumb idea that doesn't even work in bad sitcoms. So why put it in your ostensibly serious film? I'm looking at you, 90s/00s iteration George Lucas.

Wanted for Crimes against Humanity
4. Choosing the wrong end point.

Ever seen a film where there's a natural endpoint, a place that, if the director decided to roll the credits, would give the film a powerful emotional resonance--and then had to watch that director keep going for another 30 minutes, just so things can be neat and tidy? Steven Spielberg, oh how you wronged me with AI! They were sitting there in that car, and I was ready to be amazed, and then you go and have them rescued by stupid-looking future people/aliens, who then go about making everything happy/obvious that could have been heart-wrenching/ambiguous. Barf!


5. The scrappy kid.

For some unknown reason, the hero befriends some scrappy kid who tends to appear out of nowhere. The hero mentors or chums around with the kid to show that hey, he may be a bad-ass, but there's a beating heart in there, too. Tim Burton's PLANET OF THE APES and TEMPLE OF DOOM stand out as particularly egregious offenders.

"I am a very scrappy ethnic stereotype"
6. Capital "D" Directing.

Some directors have an unmistakable stamp their movies can't help but reflect, and other directors wish they belonged to that group. Alfonso Cuaron found his footing in CHILDREN OF MEN, but HARRY POTTER 3 is chock-a-bock with annoying directorial flourishes that don't accomplish anything, and Gus Van Zandt was kind enough to remind us why Hitchcock was Hitchcock by remaking PSYCHO shot-for-shot and somehow making it clunky and over-directed.

7. The heart-to-heart story.

It's the end of the second act and the hero is down in the dumps. Enter kindly grandma, weird uncle, once-distant parent, whatever, to tell a story from days gone by that utterly encapsulates the hero's current struggle, and what they need to learn from it. See the bar scene in TEAM AMERICA for a wonderful send-up of this, Chuck.

8. The boring, boring worst day.

The lights go down, we're all excited to see what this movie has to offer, only to meet the hero just as they lose their job AND boyfriend/girlfriend on the same day. What bad luck! What lazy writing!


9. Bad accents.

I'm ok with accents that are inaccurate for a time or place, and I'm ok with differing accents across a cast, as long as each person speaks consistently: in their own voice, or with a good, consistent accent. One of my favorite movies - PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER - is full of different British accents even though it's mostly set in France. All of that's fine by me, but Dustin Hoffman destroyed a really well-crafted film with an awful, awful on-again-off-again Italian accent and the most jarring word stress I've ever heard.

10. Good characters being squandered.

It's so painful seeing characters you love lose most of their depth when they're adapted from book or comic to screen. Why, WHY did they waste Silver Surfer like that?? Other giant disappointments: Cyclops, Phoenix, Rogue, Gambit, Doctor Doom, Venom, Deadpool, and Emma Frost. I'm sure this happens outside the Marvel universe too.

"I used to be a poetic, tortured soul."
11. Explosions only.

I love a summer blockbuster as much as the next sucker with nothing to do. But I'm pretty sick of the ones that consist entirely of CGI and explosions. I know it's what people want, but I can't even sit through the previews. Seriously -- BATTLESHIP?! I can't believe Tim Riggins agreed to that. See also: TRANSFORMERSES.

12. Awful songs.

It's bad enough if they're in the credits, but it's even worse when they actually make it into the film. Sometimes it's a song you're already sick of (see: Smashmouth's "All Star" in SHREK and then again in SHREK THE THIRD) and sometimes it's somebody new that a label is trying to jumpstart (a lot of songs from most of the Twilight movie soundtracks), but the worst is a new song from a crappy band you already dislike that's trying for a comeback (see: Nickelback in SPIDERMAN, Evanescence in DAREDEVIL, P. Diddy & Jimmy Page in GODZILLA). Giant exception you can feel free to judge me for: MC Hammer's "Addam's Family Groove."

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Micro Review [film]: The Fly (1986)

The Meat

1986. Jeff Goldblum. Geena Davis. That should really be enough to sell this movie to anyone who hasn't already seen it. It's a horror classic and an effing tragedy with a fantastic climax. Sure, it's a little silly that the catalyst for the plot is basically the chocolate transmitter from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. After the set-up, this movie is a disturbing, lasting experience.

The special effects for this movie are magnificently undated. They remain grotesque and horrifying. No really, it's seriously gross in a way that will satisfy every ten year old boy on the planet, but the love story and the conclusion -- the ultimate sacrifice -- are done so well that there is a surprising depth and sadness to the tragic path the characters follow.

Also, young Jeff Goldblum is ripped and hot.

The Math

Objective Quality: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for one of the most quotable lines in movie history ("Be afraid. Be very afraid."), +1 for grossness

Penalties: -1 for pretty-goddamn-grossness.

Cult Value Coefficient: 9/10


[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

Friday, May 11, 2012

Micro Review [film]: The Fly (1958)

The Meat

There's an interesting thread that runs through many films from the 1940s and '50s, which is that because these films were not permitted to show blood or gore, they seem to operate in a narrative world where blood and gore don't exist. The 1947 Edward Dmytryk film Crossfire is a notable example. It's about the investigation into the bigotry-fueled beating death of a Jewish guy that appears to have been committed by one of three soldiers. In the real world, you could look at all of the suspects' hands and see which one has the bloody, swollen knuckles. But in this world where blood seemingly doesn't exist, it requires a complex police investigation and some fancy sleuthing. The big narrative question of The Fly hinges on the same type of foolishness.

The film begins with Helene Delambre smashing her husband Andre in a hydraulic press, and when the police are summoned, she starts raving about flies. We are supposed to wonder "What's going on here? Why did Helene murder her husband?" Through a long flashback, Helene explains to Andre's brother Francois (Vincent Price) -- who seems totally cool with the fact that this crazy woman just smashed his brother into blood pudding -- that Andre had accidentally turned himself into a half-man/half-fly monstrosity through a science experiment gone wrong, and in his last moment of human clarity, Andre asked her to smush him. Her story naturally meets with skepticism. But here's the thing: if dude was really half-fly, I don't care how squashed he was, any intern would be able to tell that the big mess they have to sieve out of the hydraulic press had something seriously not-right going on with it.

Because The Fly lacks a strong narrative push and feels like it's simply ticking down the 90 minutes necessary to get us back to the part of the story we already saw and know is coming, these are the kinds of questions I found myself asking as each stream that crossed the narrative path was forded by nonsense. It's not that it's a bad movie, especially when compared to so many of its contemporaries, it's just that it's a very mediocre movie.

The Math

Objective Quality: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 for the early anamorphic widescreen photography; +1 for the "Help meeeee! Help meeeee!" cries of the giant fly-man's tiny counterpart

Penalties: -1 for woefully under-utilizing Vincent Price in his heyday; -1 for the family's interminable pursuit of a fly through the kitchen, living room, and garden of the Delambre house

Cult Value Coefficient: 5/10

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Interview with Ian Rose of NINE

Publishing and the new electronic frontier are issues nerds-feather cares deeply about. Just how will ebooks and electronic delivery alter the way we produce and consume fiction? Though previously this blog has concentrated on the world of novels, this is every bit as true for the world of edited short fiction. And short fiction is, in many ways, the lifeblood of SF/F: it's where new authors come from, it's where ideas for novels are generated (see Saladin Ahmed's precursor to Throne of the Crescent Moon, for example), and so on. Enter Nine, which bills itself as a "journal of imaginative fiction" and is taking a different approach to publishing short fiction. The G recently "sat" down with managing editor Ian Rose to discuss these and other issues.

Please explain the genesis of Nine. How did it come about?

We officially launched the site in January 2012, but we didn't publish our first issue until April 24th. The editorial staff of Nine consists of three editors (Ian Rose, Tom Corcoran and Sam Reed). We also have five other reviewers. Our editorial and publishing experience is negligible, mostly various college literary magazines and a lot of nonfiction on the web. We're all writers, and we tried to create the market that we would most want to contribute to, ironically the one for which we are all now ineligible.

The three of us were talking about short fiction markets and what we'd like as authors in our ideal market. The top criteria were decent payment, fast response times, and a relatively open online platform. A few drinks in, we decided that there was nothing that exactly fit those criteria (though a few that I list later are mighty close). Talk naturally turned to doing it ourselves, and a few months later, after some more sober planning sessions, we launched the site.

How do you see Nine fitting into the existing ecosystem of SF/F journals? What journals do you see yourselves most closely resembling? What differentiates Nine from existing journals?

I think, to a certain extent, that's up to the ecosystem to decide. We are small, with the advantages and disadvantages of a tiny staff. At this point, it's hard to say who we resemble, but we try to emulate Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Analog, and a few others. What differentiates us is that we consider ourselves more beholden to our writers than our readers. We love our readers - they pay us for something that we love to do - but we exist for the purpose of creating a paying market for writers.

You describe Nine as a “journal of imaginative fiction.” I like the more inclusive nature of that framing, but on the other hand, all fiction is arguably imaginative. So what defines the ideal Nine story? What kind of stuff are you looking for?

It's true - you don't need spaceships or faeries to be imaginative. We chose "imaginative fiction" partially because we have never been comfortable with the term "speculative fiction" as a catch-all to include fantasy and science fiction, and also because we wanted to encourage the mixing, bucking and outright ignoring of genres in our submissions. So far, we've been very happy with the results of that encouragement.

Clarkesworld has a rather detailed list of things it doesn’t want, such as zombies, lusty pirates, libertarians/communists who save/ruin America, kids who find stuff in fields, etc. Do you have subjects, devices or tropes you’d like to avoid?

We've actually been thinking about this as a blog post, but we've been waiting until we get more submissions under our belt and have a better idea for what tropes annoy us the most. We are 99% opposed to twist endings. If the last paragraph of your story can be summarized as "He/She/It was the killer/monster all along!", we're going to pass. In almost all cases, an unexpected turn is better than an outright twist. Other than that, don't cover a song or remake a movie unless you're adding something to the original. Using elements from other stories is fine, and is probably inevitable, but the less original the story becomes, the better it has to be written. We're talking mostly about re-imaginings of faerie tales and myths. Fan fiction or references to a more recent property won't make the cut, ever.

How has the submission process gone so far? Your launch issue had a story from Ken Liu, who’s one of the hottest names in SF/F short fiction at the moment. I’d say that’s something of a coup for a new journal. How did you manage that?

I'd love to say that we earned that one, but I'm not sure that would be honest. Ken is not only one of the best and hottest writers in short fiction right now, he's also one of the most prolific. The man writes, and submits, a phenomenal amount of high quality fiction. We were lucky enough to be one of the places he chose to send one of those stories, and once we read it, we knew it would make the first issue. Ken would have to answer for himself why he chose to submit to us, and being that he is one of the most responsive and friendly writers we know, he certainly would if you asked him.

As for how submissions have gone overall, we've been thrilled by the response to our calls on Twitter and elsewhere for submissions, and we've had more than we ever expected to choose from. Duotrope has been a huge source of submissions for us, and probably our best partner in this experiment outside of the writers themselves.

We seem to share concern with the low rates of author compensation that are standard in publishing. The usual argument against raising author compensation is that it would put publishers out of business, but you have promised to give 81% of every issue’s cover price to authors. How are you able to do this in the current market?

We can do it for two simple reasons. First, we have very low costs. Our founders include a web developer who does all the maintenance and technology work on our site and that site is hosted on a server we already owned. Our only out-of-pocket cost (aside from the enormous amount of time everyone on staff basically donates) is the $360 base fee for our writers each month.

Second, we are prepared to lose money. All of us have other jobs, which to varying degrees supply us with our income. We see it this way: if no one at all subscribes to Nine, we pay out $360/month to writers. We can afford to do that for quite some time. Luckily, some people have decided to subscribe, and so we feel like we can do it for even longer.

Do you anticipate becoming a Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) qualifying market?

Realistically, we aren't aiming for that right now. We are concentrating on picking the best nine stories that are sent to us each month, getting them on the site, and making it as easy as possible for our subscribers to read and, if they wish, download them. If we get to the point where we are consistently earning out the $40 advance we give to the writers and paying out additional royalties, then we'll start to think about raising the guaranteed payments and getting closer to pro-level payment. Since the concept of high-royalty revenue sharing is a foundational part of this project, we want to pay writers more that way, not necessarily through higher base pay.

Currently Nine is available through your website, but I don’t believe (and correct me if I’m wrong) that you can buy it from Amazon, B&N or Apple. What went in to the decision to do things that way? Are you looking to sell Nine through those stores at a later date, or are you consciously avoiding them? If the latter, why?

This one's simple. They take too large of a cut. I don't think they take an unfair cut, considering the incredible amount of added exposure and marketing that their platforms provide, but if we are really going to give away 81% of what we take in on every issue, we don't want to give away too many slices of that pie. The only outside vendor that takes any percentage of the cover price right now is PayPal, and that's how it will remain for the foreseeable future. Each of those marketplaces also has their own thoughts about format, DRM, etc. We want our readers to have access to read our stories in as many ways as possible, which is why we offer a web version as well as .mobi and .epub downloads.

What has been the response to issue #1 so far?

Overwhelmingly positive, with some helpful reality checks mixed in. Readers have chimed in with ways we can improve, and we've tried to take those thoughts on board without changing direction in any major ways. But overall, we've gotten 100 pats on the back for every slap on the wrist.

What can we expect from issues #2 and 3?

For one thing, Issue 2 is turning out to be quite dominated by female authors, which is exciting to us. Our first issue had great stories by Kristin Janz and Shannon Wendt, but was 7/9 male, which had a few of us a little concerned because we wanted the best fiction we could get our hands on, and that means a diversity of writers. So far, Issue 2 is much more weighted to women writers, and is oddly and entirely coincidentally dominated by Sarahs. Issue 3 is still just a twinkle in our eyes, so there's not much to say about that one. In general, we hope to settle into a nice balance between the major genres. Once again, we'd love to see more science fiction. Issue 2's novelette is scifi where #1's was pretty high fantasy, so that's going our way. Other than that - cliche alert - you'll have to read to find out!


And there you have it! You can pick up the inaugural issue of Nine through their website. We highly recommend it, not only because they've figured out a cool way to do things, but also because the stories are really good.

Micro Review [film]: Billy the Kid vs. Dracula

The Meat

At some point in 1965 or '66, some actual human being must have had this thought: "Let's get John Carradine to play a vampire again, but this time we'll stick him in the Old West, name the movie after two characters not actually appearing in the movie, and shoot the thing for a nickel in, say, my back yard in Encino!" The result, to our lasting chagrin or pleasure, depending on your predilection for cult movies, is Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.

John Carradine probably doesn't get the love he deserves -- this was a guy who played Preacher Casy in The Grapes of Wrath and made something like 9 other films with John Ford, played Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War drama Of Human Hearts, and inherited the role of Count Dracula from Bela Lugosi in the original Universal horror series. But then, over the course of his 50+ year career he also appeared in some of the worst movies ever made, and Billy the Kid vs. Dracula has to be one of the worst/most amazing of the bunch.

Please know that I fully appreciate the cognitive dissonance in what I am about to tell you: this awesome, awesome movie is one of the worst things I have ever seen. John Carradine, known for his trademark deep voice and facility with Shakespeare, pretty much just says "Grrr!" throughout the film. His character isn't actually "Dracula," since the producers would've had to license the name from Universal (how they got it in the title, I don't know), and the character referred to as "Billy the Kid," I have to assume, is not actually the outlaw of ill-repute, but just some random dude with the same nickname. No mention is ever made of him having murdered a bunch of people, being a hunted fugitive, or having supposedly been killed by that guy from CSI. He's pretty much just a ranch hand that wants to settle down with this girl Betty and live a quiet life. Too bad for him not-Dracula has rolled into town and would like to make Betty his own undead bride.

I know this sounds like gripping stuff, but make no mistake, this movie is terrible. The ranch house where most of the film is set is clearly just a modern house on what's probably a suburban corner-lot, the action is slow, tedious, and the special effects truly earn the pejorative "special defects." But if you don't laugh out loud while watching this train plummet off the tracks and into a ravine far, far below...well, you probably just aren't a fan of so-bad-they're-good movies in the first place.

The Math

Objective Quality: 2/10

Bonuses: +1 for simply existing; +1 for the way Billy finally defeats not-Dracula, which is better left unspoiled here; + 1 for the direction by William "One-Shot" Beaudine, who doesn't bother to call cut when characters refer to each other by the wrong names and even from beyond the grave scoffs at the idea of a "safety take"; +1 for John Carradine's entrance, lit from below with a bright red light in case we didn't get that he's eeeevil.

Penalties: None. Each "Bonus" is at best a left-handed compliment, so taking points away here would just be piling on.

Cult Value Coefficient: 6/10

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

Monday, May 7, 2012

Micro Review [film]: They Live

The Meat

All you really need to know about They Live is this:

There is a moment when Rowdy Roddy Piper, the WWF wrestler, walks into a bank with a gun and says "I have come here to chew bubblegum and to kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum," at which point he begins shooting the hell out of the place because his magic sunglasses allow him to see most of the customers in the bank are actually skull-faced aliens masquerading as human beings and brainwashing us through advertising.

Cult immortality: achieved.

The Math

Objective Quality: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for (see above paragraph); +1 for finding a way to mash up The Grapes of Wrath and Noam Chomsky in an alien sci-fi picture; +1 for offering legitimate social commentary that rings true 25 years later; +1 for its place in the canon of vintage John Carpenter movies; +1 for the last shot in the movie, which I won't spoil here.

Penalties: -1 for the seven-minute back-alley fight scene between Roddy Piper and Keith David (I know a lot of people like this, but it is literally seven minutes long); -1 for Roddy Piper's immediate, complete, and never-questioned transformation from mild-mannered day laborer into unstoppable killing machine.

Cult Value Coefficient: 9/10

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

In Response to Charles Stross

Charles Stross has written another mindblowing essay, called "The Death of Genre." The essay is, in part, a response to Elizabeth Bear's recent essay suggesting science fiction and fantasy (which  we call SF/F but others, including Bear, call speculative fiction) have gotten too impressed with their own seriousness (which she pejoratively calls "grimdark"); and Abi Sutherland's response that, no, SF/F is plenty fun, thank you very much. Stross thinks they're both asking the wrong questions. Rather, he argues, we should be asking what the label SF/F actually means, where it came from and, if the conditions that led to the genre-balkanization of literature are even relevant anymore. And if not, what's next?

The Death of Genre

Stross argues that genre-balkanization is an effect of shelving expediency in the physical bookstore:
Regular bookstores have to rely on churn, to attempt to provide a customer who returns every month to buy a couple of books with a fresh selection, to provide the illusion of something wider than the choice dictated by the rent they pay on floor space.
But suppose you're a reader looking for a new novel by your favourite author in a shop with thousands or tens of thousands of titles! You need some sort of indexing system. Consequently, books are filed by category—which in fiction means by genre—and then, hopefully, alphabetically within their category. 
The book store clerk, then, has to be able to rapidly identify the category to which a book (coming in one of several cartons, along with hundreds of other books) belongs. And that's where the rocket ship logo on the spine, or the headless woman with a stake (back turned to reveal the tramp stamp) comes in. It tells the store clerk that this is a work of SF, or a work of paranormal romance. Which in turn tells them where to shelve the book.
And this is where our genre ghetto comes from.
Then he argues that ebooks have completely flipped the script:
Genre, in the ebook space, is a ball and chain. It stops you reaching new audiences who might like your work. You are an editor, presented with "Rule 34": do you choose to market it as SF, as crime/police procedural, or as mainstream literary fiction? Wouldn't it be better to market it as all three, with different cover designs and cover blurbs and marketing pitches and reader recommendations and reviews for each bookstore category? We've seen this in microcosm with Harry Potter: the use of adult-friendly covers allowed parents to buy the books and read them during their commute to work, for example.

On paper, that's very expensive/hard to organize: in electronic media it is simply a matter of commissioning as many cover designs as your book design budget will stretch to, and then convincing the big retailers to associate a different cover image with the results of each search by genre category. 
We already see ebooks being tagged as multiple categories. It's only a matter of time before publishers and authors develop more sophisticated electronic marketing strategies that either micro-target a specific audience, or that target multiple readerships in parallel.
The upshot of this is that ebooks allow for a break with genre-balkanization, the implication being that once you have a more complex and multidimensional labeling system, you don't need the shackles of genre, which may be comforting, but in reality have regulated you to a specific section of the bookshop,  separated from others who are different from you. Instead, you can label something in all the meaningful ways you can think of, and draw consumers from all those orientations. For example, Jonathan Lethem's Gun, With Occassional Music would be labeled as: dystopian science fiction, detective/noir fiction and literature. It would not be relegated to just one shelf. This, Stross argues, portends the death of SF/F as mode of categorization.

In Response 

Before adding my thoughts, I'd just like to say that I think Stross' essay is brilliant. There's loads more thoguht-provoking stuff in the article that I don't have the time or the space to cover here, so please click through and read it in its entirety.

That said, while I accept the premise that the ebook market will transform the way we categorize books, I think Stross is only partially right in his conclusions. Here's why...

Friday, May 4, 2012

ALERT! The Elder Scrolls Online Announced!

So this is where the cursed Thalmor live 
The fanboy in me just screamed: "Holy ***t. Holy ****ing ***t!"

Let me explain: if RPGs are the whiskeys of the video game world, then Bethesda Software's The Elder Scrolls series are the single-malt scotches, with Skyrim the 30-year Macallen that costs $1000 per bottle. It gave us a totally convincing world where doing things like picking flowers or making iron daggers were almost as fun as clearing dungeons or finishing quests. I don't know how many hours I sank into it, but suffice to say, I have never--and I mean never--felt as attached to a game or felt as convinced by the world it created.

I often wondered, though, what it would have been like to team up with a couple of friends and tackle the dragons, Falmer, Thalmor and others together. Well, my friends, that time has come:
Bethesda Softworks is taking The Elder Scrolls online. The game maker announced today that it is developing a massively multiplayer online (MMO) version of its popular franchise. The Elder Scrolls Online is in development at ZeniMax Online Studios under the direction of director Matt Firor. It will be available on PCs and Macs sometime next year. 
Bethesda promised more information about the MMO in the June issue of Game Informer. In a preview, the magazine said "players will discover an entirely new chapter of Elder Scrolls history in this ambitious world, set a millennium before the events of Skyrim as the daedric prince Molag Bal tries to pull all of Tamriel into his demonic realm."
No word yet on console versions, but apparently there's more information coming tomorrow.

Micro Review [film]: The Satanic Rites of Dracula

The Meat
When a movie has a satanic ritual, boobs, strangulation, a motorcycle chase, and a gunshot to the face in the first five minutes, you can’t help but think you’re in for a ride.

It’s hard not to judge 1974’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula (AKA Count Dracula and his Vampire Bride as it was released in American markets) in the context of the other Hammer Horror Dracula movies. After all, it wrapped exactly fifteen years after the release of the first movie in the “series,” 1958’s Dracula -- and is the third and final film in the series to star Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing opposite each other. Hammer made a total of nine Dracula movies those fifteen years, and it’s pretty generally agreed that Satanic Rites was not quitting while they were ahead. It is worth noting that it’s the only one of the bunch that brought Dracula to modern times, so of course it hasn’t stood the test of time as well as the others.

Satanic Rites also pushes against its genre boundaries; it’s less a classic horror movie and more of an action thriller, but is that the type of movie that Dracula should be in? Nope, not really. And it seems like the filmmakers knew it, as Dracula – Christopher Lee’s Dracula! – is underused, so the film hinges on the admittedly novel idea of a reclusive Dracula bent killing everyone he could potentially feed on so that, eventually, he himself will die. (So... why wouldn’t he just let Van Helsing stake him? Seems neater.)

Attack of the Plot! A secret service agent escapes his capture by a satanic cult but dies, so Scotland Yard and Van Helsing himself step in. The cult abducts another Secret Service agent who Drac snacks on and turns in a vampire to be kept in his basement with his other wives. Mr. Scotland Yard, another agent, and Van Helsing’s hot granddaughter go investigating, find the ladies and stake the vampire agent.

In the meantime, Van Helsing’s scientist friend is murdered and the virulent strain of the Bubonic Plague he was working on is gone. The dead scientist’s notes lead Van Helsing to discover that Dracula was funding the research under a modern moniker because of a suicidal revenge plot against humanity. Van Helsing tries to shoot Dracula with a silver bullet (a Hammer addition to vampire lore used in a previous film) but fails. Dracula envokes Bond Villian Stupidity by transferring Van Helsing to the cult house instead of killing him. The agent is killed, and Van Helsing’s hot granddaughter and Mr. Scotland Yard are captured by the cult.

After Dracula monologues, one of his minions breaks the plague vial. Mr. Scotland Yard tries to break free, attacks a guard, and makes a computer explode, starting a fire. The infected burn with the house, while all the main characters get free. Dracula goes after Van Helsing, who lures the vampire into a hawthorn bush (another Hammer addition alluded to earlier in the movie) where he is trapped until he gets the stake.

Yeah, you read that right: Dracula gets caught in a bush.

The Math 

Objective Quality: 4/10

Bonuses: +1 for a really crunchy, realistically forceful stakings and other special effects, +1 for Christopher Lee, +1 for boobs (the first in Hammer Horror)

Penalties: -1 for adding more crap to vampire lore (too many things can kill vampires in Hammer), -1 for it being something extra stupid like a bush, -1 for underutilizing Christopher Lee

Cult Value Coefficient: 4/10

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Micro Review [Film]: Gog

The Meat

Gog begins with some scientists in an underground lab killing a monkey by freezing it to death. Boo, scientists. But then they bring the monkey back to life by thawing it out. Yay, scientists! But then, something mysterious lures the scientists into the freezing chamber one by one, and freezes them to death. Boo, silent killer. This is when the strapping Dr. David Sheppard ("shepherd," this is important) arrives from Washington and takes up residence in the underground science lab to investigate these killings. But the killings aren't done...not by a long shot. By the time things are said and done, we'll have killer radioactive plants, killer audio tones, gymnasts, flamethrowers (yes! multiple flamethrowers!), and killer robots (naturally).

I have to say, though, and I don't think I'm really giving anything away here, if your name is "Sheppard," and you meet two robots named Gog and Magog, Biblical names used as blanket references to the enemies of God, you gotta figure those guys are up to no good. An investigator more literate in archetypes may have been able to avert a lot of needless bloodshed.

There is a lot to like about Gog but it is a particularly interesting movie to consider at the current moment in film history. First, it was shot in 3D in 1954, but by the time it came out much of the fever for 3D had died down, and the bubble had mostly burst -- just like today. So even in its original run, most people saw Gog in 2D. Second, a screenwriter friend recently said to me "If I were giving anybody advice on how to make a bunch of money selling a script, I'd tell them to write a contained thriller." If you're not hip to parlance of the times, a "contained thriller" is something scary or freaky that takes place in basically a single location. There's a guy in a coffin with only a cell phone, and that's the movie. Or, there's a dude in a phone booth and if he steps out of it, somebody will shoot him. Or, a couple stops at an ATM to get some money, but can't leave the ATM lobby because somebody will kill them. Or, somebody farts in a car, but their windows are stuck and they just have to sit there in it and suffer. You get the idea. Gog could easily be considered a contained thriller, taking place almost entirely in the underground science lab, but it's probably a lot better than the other movies I just mentioned. Especially that last one.

The Math

Objective Quality: 6/10 and the print currently in circulation is fairly exceptional.

Bonuses: +1 for attempting to get the science right. I'm not going to say they nailed it (I'm looking at you, radioactive plant sequence), but they did a heck of a lot better than This Island Earth; +1 for being out of circulation for decades, but now being readily available on DVD and Netflix Instant; +1 for the interesting mix of sci-fi with straight-up Cold War politics. It's not a metaphor for the Cold War, it actually goes there.

Penalties: -1 for how long it takes to get going after the scientists are freeze-dried in the opening. It gets relatively glacial for about 30 minutes. You have been pun'd.

Cult Value Coefficient: 8/10

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Locus Award 2012 Nominees/Predicted Winners

The Locus Awards (named after the Locus SF Foundation) are becoming a bigger and bigger deal in SF/F. Though still not quite as prestigious as the Hugos or Nebulas, they nevertheless do some interesting things that set them apart. Like, for example, giving separate awards for best science fiction and best fantasy novel, and giving the n00bs an opportunity for some recognition in the "best first novel" category. It's nice to see some variety in how the major awards do things.

Oh, and if you like that kind of thing, the award ceremony is in the wonderful (and super nerd-friendly) city of Seattle, June 15-17. It's going to be hosted by award magnet/author Connie Willis too, so I imagine tickets will go quickly.

On to the nominees and my predicted winners...