The Kraken Wakes

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndam
The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndam

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndam

Another winner from British SF master John Wyndam.  The Kraken Wakes imagines an invasion of the Deep parts of our ocean by a malevolent force from the outer solar system (Neptune? Jupiter? I can’t remember).  After they settle in and start mucking around down there, they show that they were up to no good by destroying our sea lanes and ships, melting the ice caps, murdering people who live on the coast, and generally trying to extinguish us.  It’s a dark story, but pretty good.  A few thoughts:

  • As in Day of the Triffids, Wyndam focuses as much on the stupidity and terrible choices humans make in the face of bad events.  The slow burn of Kraken lets Wyndam explore how governments fail to respond to real problems, how we hand-wave and avoid the truth of the thing until it’s too late to stop.  If this book weren’t written in 1953, I would suggest it’s a parable about Global Warming.  Hell, you should read it that way just ‘cuz.
  • There’s truly horrifying and awesome moment in the book when the creatures have begun invading the land, driving up in egg-shaped “tanks” and deploying sticky tentacles that collect organic matter into compressed, writhing, screaming balls.  These then roll into the ocean and, presumably, down to the deeps.  One character suggests that it’s the monstrous equivalent of shrimping.  I was particularly horrified until I thought of Katamari Damancy and its rolled-up balls of stuff.  When you roll a person into the ball in that game, they wiggle and scream–and it’s funny.  Poor bastards.
  • My favorite part of the book is the poor scientist who sees it all coming.  Each time he suggests that something is happening, people call him a fool and ignore his advice.  Then, when the thing he predicted has come to pass and they’re trying to deal with it, he suggests something else and they call him a fool again.  He compares himself to Cassandra, and is right.

A little slow at parts — not the cracking thriller that Day of the Triffids is–but a good book nonetheless.

I think she’s yelling at him for wearing her coat.

Dismay
Dismay and a wagging finger

Warm Bodies: a parable for world peace

Warm Bodies
Warm Bodies

This isn’t so much a review as a meditation on the story, like you’d be subjected to on the ride home from the film if you were with me when I saw it.

There are spoilers below, so turn back now if you know what’s good for you.

 

Warm Bodies tell the Romeo and Juliet story in zombie form, with the power of love making it possible for zombies to come back to life.  I liked the film quite a bit for several reasons:

  • It’s cute and funny, even beyond the bits they showed too much of in the commercials.
  • It was relatively gore free.  This is crucial for mainstream audiences to start liking zombies and zombie movies better.  This could very well be one of the first zombie movies I let our children watch.
  • It was a well-formed and believable(?) story.  I put the question mark in there because hey, it is a zombie movie.

There were a few things I didn’t like about it:

  • Some of the themes were a bit on the heavy-handed side, as will inevitably be the case when the power of human connection is what brings people back to life.
  • We know the colonel feels guilty about his wife dying.  It is clearly what drives him just as Julia’s boyfriend (not the zombie) was driven by his father’s death.

Two larger concerns:

First, what is the physical state of the post-zombie person (like R at the end of the film)?  Are they human, as is implied by the bleeding?  If they’ve been dead this whole time, what happens to the state that made them be dead to begin with, I.E. gross bodily trauma?  Are those wounds somehow healed by the zombie virus?  Does it cure internal maladies (like cancer)?  If you have terminal cancer, die of a zombie bite, reanimate, and then are cured, do you still have cancer at the end?    Yes, you lose your memories of your former life, but the Rob Corddry character’s experience implies something more complex.

Second, I regret to say that this film won’t be as interesting in my zombie class as I would have hoped.  The zombie romance part is pretty uncomplicated — there aren’t any ethical questions or quandaries in the romance (except the dead boyfriend, which gets massaged over pretty quickly), and the larger questions about how society would deal with the post-zombie world aren’t addressed.    Zombie Honeymoon and My Boyfriend’s Back both deal with the question of the ethics of eating other people a bit more directly and strongly.

I think Warm Bodies would be interesting to think about in a class about conflict resolution.  The central message of the film has to do with the way human contact can overcome strong adversarial feelings.  It’s kind-of utopian in that way.

Old Man’s War

Old Man's War
Old Man’s War

Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi

We read this for my science-fiction book club this month.  Scalzi’s Old Man’s War continues the tradition of adventure space war novels in line with Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Haaldeman’s Forever War, and Deitz’s The Legion.  Humankind needs defending, and our main character will be launched into space to do it.  Hoo-wah.  A few thoughts:

  • I can’t help but wonder if Scalzi was inspired by Al Franken.  In Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, Al Franken has a chapter in which he suggests two “uses” for old people that would also help solve the social security crisis.  First, he suggests that we make them soldiers; second, he urges NASA to use them for space exploration.  It’s satire.  Scalzi’s book combines both premises.  (Dang it, this guy also noticed the Franken/Scalzi connection, but doesn’t seem to know about Franken’s book.)
  • I liked the idea of augmented combat bodies being the only way humans can compete with the multitude of monsters out there.  Also, kitty-cat eyes and green skin.
  • I also thought it was funny that the first thing all the old folks do when transferred into young bodies is to sex it up for a week.  Of course that’s what they would do — they know how to party.
  • Most interesting to me is the way Scalzi quickly does away with the Star Trek view of the universe.  In order to expand, we humans need to fight for every inch of every colony we can get on these other planets, mostly with species just as violent and expansionary as us.  It’s a view of nature red in tooth and claw.

A great book in the tradition of space war adventures.  Not a stunning literary achievement, but fun to read and well worth your time.

Music roundup MEGA EDITION, part 1

I haven’t done a music roundup since, ahem, October.  This does not mean I haven’t been listening to new music each month.  I just haven’t been writing about it.  Today and next Saturday I will include a list of the music on those playlists and brief notes on the albums.

October

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jp-gX5C3vZI]

Emusic

  • Mumford & Sons, Babel.  This album deserves all the albums it won.  It’s very similar to their old work, but great nonetheless.  “Whispers in the Dark” is my favorite.
  • Dinosaur Jr, Beyond. A solid DJ outing, something I hadn’t encountered in a while.  “We’re Not Alone” is my favorite.
  • Tom Waits, Alice.  A fantastic album, as always.  Each time I get a TW album, there’s at least one song that sticks in my craw and hangs out for a long time.  On this album it’s “Kommienezuspadt”
  • Flight of the Conchords, “Carol Brown,” “You Don’t Have to be a Prostitute,” “Friends,” “Angels” – all four are enjoyable.  But Carol Brown fits the genre of the “list of lovers” song, similar to Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave your Lover,” except that it’s Jemaine who’s being left.
  • Pete Seeger, “Wreck of the Old 97,” “E-ri-e Canal” – I like Seeger’s jaunty singing about the most awful things.

Other

  • Harrison Hudson, American Thunder – A strange sound, sort-of late 1950s, but not without inflections of all the sounds since then.  I particularly liked “Run My Way” and “Sadly Sad”
  • Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, Let It Sway – Guitar-driven indie rock.  Solid stuff. “Sink/Let It Sway”
  • Asobi Seksu, Fluorescence – A decent rock band, but the music didn’t really click with me.
  • Born to Run – More selected tracks from the Car Talk album.   Nothing popped out at me this time
  • Bon Iver, Daytrotter Studio session, I can see why people like this artist, but his high singing voice gets on my nerves.  I like the song “Creature Fear.”

November

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjkXXjxINVU]

Emusic

  • The Replacements, Let It Be – Early punk music.  It was fine, but I guess I was hoping it would click with me the way the Clash did.  Not so.  Interesting to learn that “Androgynous” was not a Crash Test Dummies original.
  • Tally Hall, Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum. I like this album a lot. It’s a weird mix of styles with a wry grin, somewhere between Barenaked Ladies and Moxy Fruvous in approach.  I liked “Good Day,” and “The Bidding.” “Two Wuv” is a funny paean to Mary Kate and Ashley, while “Mucka Blucka” is just awesomely weird.  (It was The Soup‘s featuring of this song that made me seek out TH in the first place).
  • Paul and Storm, songs from Do You Like Star Wars? “Hippie with a Djembe” is particularly silly.

Other

      • Aficionado, eponymous – A bit more rock and roll guitar than I usually prefer.   I really liked “Permanent”
      • Sister Suvi, Now I Am Champion – Kinda shouty in singing style.  Good guitar work, but the songs are generally longer than they need to be.
      • Doc & Merle Watson, via Cover Lay Down – Solid bluegrass songs, nothing that stands out.
      • Born to Run – More selected tracks from the Car Talk album.   Nothing popped out at me this time
      • Pete Seeger, more songs –  I still like Seeger’s jaunty singing about the most awful things.
      • The History of Apple Pie, Daytrotter Studio session – Their sound reminds me of Juliana Hatfield. In a good way.
      • The Mountain Goats, Echo Mountain Recording– “This Year” is an amazing song.  Apparently it’s eight years old.  Anyhow, it’s new to me.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ii6kJaGiRaI]

Operation Mincemeat

Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre
Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory
by Ben Macintyre, narrated by John Lee

Ben Macintyre has a strong sense for storytelling, crafting a tale full of vital details that bring it to life while providing the reader a strong sense of the history involved in his tale.  This book, Operation Mincemeat, tells the true story of a secret British operation to dupe the Nazis by dropping a corpse carrying fake secret documents in the water off the coast of Spain in efforts to mislead the German hierarchy.  A few quick thoughts:

  • This book gives a better sense than any I’ve read previously about just how the intelligence service worked in Britain during the war.  This reflects, no doubt, on the paucity of reading I have done on the subject. But Macintyre threads the needle by providing just the right amount of information to keep us interested without overwhelming us.
  • The level of detail and the complicated machinations of both sides in the espionage service was quite thrilling.  These tales were made even more exciting by Macintyre’s solid storytelling, making real effort to give us a sense of the people involved in this plan.
  • That said, the biggest flaw for me was the life stories of the principles.   Whenever the book took a detour from the expanding narrative of the plan in order to give us the someone’s background, I found myself grumbling.  I’m not sure how Macintyre could have handled these parts differently and I think they belong in the book, but I was still eager to learn how things turned out and found the biographies to be more detailed than I needed.

Narrator John Lee does an excellent job bringing his refined English voice to the tale’s telling.  In particular, Lee is very good at pronouncing Italian and Spanish names, something I learned the first time I encountered him during my “reading” of Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling.

Operation Mincemeat is well worth the read, very entertaining and thrilling, but with a solid core of history, both new and familiar.

There’s nothing better on a Sunday than a parade of meats

The Meat Parade
The Meat Parade

Gun Machine

Gun Machine by Warren Ellis
Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

Ellis’ latest novel follows the investigation of a burned out homicide detective in New York who accidentally uncovers an elaborately-built cache of guns in a tenement apartment.  His life gets much more complicated when it turns out that every one of the dozens of guns he found have been used in unsolved New York homicides.  A few thoughts:

  • The novel carries Ellis’ trademark ability to stamp the dark and gritty on a story.  As Detective Tallow drives around the city, he listens to the police scanner and discovers all manner of grotesquerie and mayhem.  It’s a grim city populated and policed by madmen.
  • I love the notion of Tallow being an outcast, in part, because he likes to read.  His book and car overflow with books and magazines.
  • The killer is a less compelling figure than I would have hoped.  While I liked the book very much, the denouement isn’t as strong as I would have liked given the fantastic premise that set up the story.

I am dithering about whether my book club would like this book.  On the one hand, they would probably like the characters and the mystery, on the other hand, I’m not sure they’d like the gritty aspect of the city.  As a Warren Ellis fan, I can heartily endorse it.

In which I pontificate on The Walking Dead

A story about a ‘Walking Dead’ promotional event features a few choice quotes from yours truly:

Lively interest in undead

Created exclusively for the venue by local talent booker and “Dead” fan Matt Beringer and Nicotero’s speaking engagement agent Scott Wolfman, the event sold out the first weekend it went on sale (outside of a few scattered solo seats), prompting an encore presentation Saturday night.

Interest in the undead has rarely been as lively as in recent years, with genre diversifications ranging from high-minded horror (“28 Days Later”), to an undead classic novel mashup (the book “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”), to “zom-coms” such as “Zombieland,” “Shaun of the Dead” and “Warm Bodies.”

“My personal take is the recent rise of zombie titles correlates with the digital age,” said Brendan Riley, an associate professor of English who teaches “Zombies in Popular Media” at Columbia College Chicago and contributed an essay to the book “The Triumph of the Walking Dead: Robert Kirkman’s Zombie Epic on Page and Screen.”

“It’s distancing us from each other and ourselves, and in some ways zombies reflect our fear of being out of control.”

More storytellers are realizing that “zombies are the most interesting kind of monster because they allow so many different kinds of stories to be told,” Riley said. “It allows for tales of paranoia, it allows us to tell stories of how we treat one another, it challenges the ideas of what it is to be a person.”

Go ahead and read the whole story.

2013 Ray Browne Conference on Popular Culture @BG_PCSA #BCPC13

What a fun time I had at the 2013 Ray Browne conference on Popular Culture last weekend.  Here’s what I saw:

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Session 1: Social Media and (Self) Presentation.

Panel Moderator: Myc Wiatrowski (Bowling Green State University)
Rebecca Butorac (Indiana University): Social Media Caught Socially Unaware: Parody, Performance and Reflexivity in the “First World Problems Anthem” – a smart analysis of the rhetoric used by ads asking for help.  Ms. Butorac compared the First World Problems Anthem with the hoary old Sally Struthers CCF ads.  She rightly pointed out the dangers of fetishizing suffering to raise money.  A key question to explore in future — did the more ethical method work better to raise money?  If not, which is better, to exploit and raise money for the cause or to be straightforward and less effective at fundraising?

Emily Davis (Bowling Green State University): The Eating disorders of Instagram – Ms. Davis presented a very compelling exploration of the secret pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia groups on Instagram, groups that use photos and comments to support one another in maintaining the dangerous eating habits.  She highlighted two really interesting observations – first, the private, personal, portable nature of Instagram as phone app makes it an enabler, a tool that makes it easier to hide these addictions.  Second, recovering sufferers of these diseases maintain connections to the community, a stunning idea to my mind.  I can’t imagine an alcoholic who hangs out in a bar while trying to recover.

Session 7: Commodities and Auras in a Technologic Age

Panel Moderator: Dr. Jeremy Wallach (Bowling Green State University)
Tim Jones (Bowling Green State University): “Wooden Idols and Aviator Shades”: Thingness and Technology in the Comics and Books of Chris Ware – Jones’ paper was destined to be a favorite as I’m such a big Chris Ware fan.  He compared the notion of success and meaning in Ware’s two books, the “Red” book, which is built around an idea of failure, and Building Stories, which seems to be constructed around an idea of one’s own success.
Jacob Brown (Bowling Green State University): Aura in the Information Age: Warehouse 13, Geekomancy, and Benjamin – Brown gave a vigorous talk exploring the magic system in the novel Geekomancy and its attendant re-evaluation of the Benjaminian notion of aura.  The suggestion, here, is that “nerdstalgia” provides a different kind of motive for understanding how we invest emotional capital in things.

3:30 Keynote Address 1

Dr. Brendan Riley (Columbia College, Chicago): “You Need a System to Make it Work: Detectives, Memory, and the Age of Electracy” – A compelling keynote from a brilliant scholar!

Session 10: Marketing, Awareness, and Cults of Personality

Panel Moderator: Debbie Ribiera (Bowling Green State University)
Sean Ahern (University at Buffalo): Il Communication: National Heroes in the Life and Death of Kim Jong-il – I’m afraid I missed much of this paper because I was talking with people after my keynote, but from what I did see, Ahern explored the nature of the propaganda around the leader of North Korea and his public image.

Monica Lott (Kent State University): “A Deliberate Popularity: The Self-Conscious Author in the Works of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers” – I’ve had the pleasure of seeing quite a few of Monica Lott’s papers over the years.  She brings a thorough, classic approach to the study of mystery and she didn’t disappoint this time.  This paper was about the dissatisfaction Sayers and Christie felt by the constrictions of the genres they wrote for.  Christie in particular solved the problem in a number of ways, including putting herself into the books and writing some books under a pseudonym.

Anna Louise Wiegenstein (Bowling Green State University): “Hot, Ready, Legal” The Business of Bieber – Ms. Wiegenstein’s paper made a thorough analysis of the marketing efforts behind Justin Bieber’s public transition from “boy” to “man” in the public eye.  This was easily the most enjoyable paper of the conference for the pure performative nature of Ms. Wiegenstein’s work.  As one person put it, she delivered the talk with one eyebrow raised sardonically.  Most striking, I thought, was that both Bieber and Lindsay Lohan appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone under the title “Hot, Ready, Legal” when they turned eighteen.

6:30 Keynote Address 2

Thomas Malaby (University of Wisconsin Milwaukee): “Domesticating Games” – Malaby presented an excellent discussion of the nature of Game as a kind of social order, and suggested it as a new form on par with Bureaucracy and Ritual, something to be used and explored in that context.  I took tons of notes and came away from the talk quite energized.  Most key for me was the three part discussion of these social orders, since both Bureaucracy and Ritual have long been part of my vocabulary about the structuring methods for societies under different ages of human communication (Ritual: Orality:: Bureaucracy: Literacy) leading to the question of whether Game presents itself as Electracy’s social order.  A thought worth pondering, for sure.

 

Sunday, 10 February

Session 11: The Digital Frontier: Fans and Trolls

Panel Moderator: Nicki Reamer (Bowling Green State University)
Blake Hallinan (Indiana University): “How are you, I’m fine thanks:  … on Tumblr” – Solid discussion of fandom, fan art, and communities on Tumblr.  My favorite observation was that men and women tend to engage in fandom differently and that men use their flavor of fandom as a gatekeeping method to dismiss typically-female approaches to fandom.  This seems to be changing, though, focusing around the sharing of sacred texts.  Hallinan makes a strong connection between the fan art/community and the way that religious communities revere texts and sainted figures.
Laura Guill (Purdue University Calumet): Nerdfighters and the Project for Awesome: Participatory Culture and Affinity Space – Guill’s discussion of the Nerdfighter community provided lots to think about, exploring the value of participatory communities as spaces for action over passive audience activities.  She detailed how they’re rhetorically welcoming and fiercely protective of that welcoming attitude.  The biggest takeaway from this piece was, for me, a flash of inspiration about MOOCs — might this kind of activity be one of the ways to develop work in a MOOC, using the community enthusiasm for projects?  Will ponder.

 

Zombie, Illinois

Zombie, Illinois
Zombie, Illinois

Zombie, Illinois
by Scott Kenemore

When the zombie apocalypse starts in the second city, it’s not just corpses that crawl out of the ground, but the secrets they keep.  This book serves as a kind of partner for his earlier novel, Zombie, Ohio, in that the former was about rural life during the apocalypse and this is about city life.  Kenemore tells the story from three perspectives, each a bit different and each interesting.

  • While the zombies in the novel are entertaining and wonderful, they aren’t the center of the story.  Kenemore uses them as a springboard to write about his real subject, the iniquities and corruptions of the city of Chicago.  The man knows this town and it shows.
  • Kenemore just keeps getting better at developing voices and characters.  The story crackles with action and wit, but doesn’t become campy or full of itself.  A really solid tale.
  • Once again, Kenemore shows his thorough thoughtfulness about the zombie apocalypse in the way he writes about neighhorhoods.  Like Max Brooks before him, Kenemore suggests that the impoverished have had to learn to make a go of it without the support of society around them.  This makes them ideally suited to survive when the dead come knocking.  A basement full of automatic weapons helps too.

For people desiring the all-out zombie terror of a World War Z or Walking Dead, Kenemore’s book may be a bit too light on cannibal corpses.  Nonetheless, it’s a solid read and well worth your time.

Full disclosure — I know Scott Kenemore, and have had him visit my class a few times.

 

This kind of mustache is hip again, in case you didn’t know.

A stein makes everything better
A stein makes everything better

I hope cigarette holders come back next.

Books you missed while I was busy (4) – Non-fiction

 Even though I stopped my regular blogging in mid-October, I didn’t stop reading.  I certainly don’t have time to go back and write reviews of all the stuff I read, but I do like to keep track and I know you need to know what I’ve been reading.  So here are the last of the books I read since mid October when I stopped blogging.
Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling
A detailed account of the way the most famous sculptor of his day ended up working in an extremely difficult medium that he didn’t consider himself an expert at.  Both the Pope and Michelangelo come off as pretty petulant.  The biggest takeaway of the book, for me, is the delicacy and exactitude required for fresco, which is an unforgiving medium.  Also, he would have stood and bent backwards, not lay on his back on a scaffold.
The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World’s Most Perplexing Cold Cases
This book would have been better if it had been shorter.  Capuzzo does a great job documenting the adventures of these elite profilers, but the sheer number of cases (and the ever-growing gruesomness of them) got to me after a while.  There are only so many sicko serial killers I can read about before I’m ready to be done.
Bad Signal, Volume 2 Bad Signal, Volume 2
More highlights from Warren Ellis’ Bad Signal email list in the early 2000s.  It’s an interesting snapshot of the mind of a good writer, watching how Ellis works through certain ideas over time and proposes notions that challenge comics industry gospel.  Not for the general reader, but the Warren Ellis fan will appreciate it.

…And now you’re all caught up.  We now resume regular programming.

Fourteen names

Each week as part of the service at Unity Temple in Oak Park, the ministers read from the book of the prayers of the people — a book you can write requests in for the congregation to include.  They take pains to include three lists each week:

  • Individuals being held in McHenry County Jail awaiting INS hearings.  Usually this list is too long to read the names, so they read the home countries of the individuals on the list.
  • U.S. Military Men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past week (or since they last read the list).
  • People killed by violence in Chicago in the past week (or since they last read the list).

There were two remarkable things about the list yesterday.  First, there were no individuals on the list of those killed in Afghanistan.  It was the first time in the four years I’ve been attending the church that there were no names on that list.  But then…

There were fourteen people listed on the Chicago death list.

While the sermon that emerged later was interesting, I spent most of the service haunted by that number.

Fourteen.

Of course, many smarter writers than I have spent a lot of time on this question.  The violence in this country (and in my city, particularly) springs from economic despair, mostly, and is amplified by a robust black market in illegal drugs and a society awash in easily-obtained firearms.  So many of the deaths are accidental — unintended bystanders shot during a drive-by.

One of the fourteen was an unarmed fifteen year old girl standing outside her school.

I can understand the toothpaste argument.  Guns have been legal and available so long that to make rules now making them illegal harms only the people who follow the rules.   On the other hand, more guns means more gun deaths.  The wild west wasn’t safer because everyone had a pistol on their hip.  And statistics have consistently shown that guns in homes are far more likely to kill innocents than criminals.  Erik Larsen’s book Lethal Passage explores this topic very well.

We see lots of protests and discussions demanding to curb this violence, demanding that the city, or the state, or the government DO something about it.  But what are they to do?  An increased police presence seems likely to turn high crime neighborhoods into military zones, locked down with curfews and tyrannies. (See Davis, City of Quartz.)

The systemic solution seems likely to stem from increased funding for police, for schools, for job programs, for opportunities instead of guns.  But these are slow solutions that take the will of politicians who are elected (and defeated) on fast news cycles.

I despair for my city.  I don’t know what to do to help.  There were fourteen people on the list yesterday.