Mar 23 2016

FOGcon Recap 2016

A couple of weekends ago — has it been that long? — I traveled up to exotic Walnut Creek to gather with fellow readers and writers to talk about genre books, movies, and other bits of geekery at FOGcon. As always it was a fun event, which included tons of coffee and a little booze and karaoke and other such things.

Honored Guests were Jo Walton, Ted Chiang, and Donna Haraway, with Octavia Butler services as Honored Ghost.

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Panels

Lots of great thinky things at the panels this year to mentally chew on. Nom, nom. The panels tended to be more focused on science discussions that reading and writing discussions, but it was fascinating nonetheless.

The Developing Reality of Intelligent Machines looked at how AI is perceived in fiction and films as a self-aware being compared to how intelligent technology in the real world today is being used to provide better ways to solve problems. The intelligent machines of today are incredibly advanced in how they have been programed to serve human needs. But, as the panelists noted, these computers and machines are limited to their programming — they will do what they are programmed to do. So the concern is not so much about machines suddenly becoming self aware and taking over the world, but who is running the machines and to what purposes are they setting them to.

And even if a machine were to become self aware, it would be questionable as to whether human beings would recognize the moment when it occurred. It’s assumed (in movies and fiction) that AIs would think in the same ways that we do, however, that is not necessarily the case. Someone from the audience stated that the singularity is now, bringing up the game of Go (apparently more complex than chess) taking place between a computer and Go champion that evening (which the computer won).

The From Caterpillar to Butterfly panel delved into the weirdness of nature, from parthenogenesis to penis fencing flatworms to interesting mistakes in biology. We discussed the adorable tardigrade, or water bearer, an adorable micro-animal that is the only creature known to be able to survive in hard vacuum; a multitude of amazing plants (such as a vine that can change its leaves to match the tree they’re on); and animals that can change their gender (such as the clown fish, all of which are male, except for the biggest and baddest, which becomes the only female). The lesson, for me, was that in designing alien or strange species of animals with interesting biology and social structure, a writer can definitely turn to the natural world for inspiration of many kinds. Recommended Reading: The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution by Richard Dawkins and Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation by Olivia Judson.

Other great panels (which I’m going to go into less detail on, because time):

The Ethics of Magic discussed how the rules of magic are presented in stories. For example, the rules of Star Wars present the Jedi as the “good guys” despite some deeply troubling and morally ambiguous aspects to their order. Recommended Reading: Wildseed by Octavia Butler.

Are 72 Letters Enough? In Search of a Perfect Language tried to define what was meant by “perfect.” For some this was a language that was unabiguous and complete, able to portray every thing in existence accurately. The discussion lead into how often the concept of the “true name” for things comes up in fiction, among many other things. Recommended Reading:  The Search for a Perfect Language by Umberto Eco and “TAP” by Greg Egan.

Homo Sapiens Tekhne: Assistive Devices and Body Modification in Science Fiction and Fantasy looked at the past and present of human body modifications, from tatoos and piercings to assistive devices and cell phones, as well as looking at how body modification is handled in stories. Recommended Reading: Runtime by S.B. Divya.

And finally, Domestic Fantasy: Transforming the Domestic looked at how the domestic scene, family and home, are portrayed in fantasy stories. Recommended Reading: Necessary Beggar by Susan Palwick and Little, Big by John Crowley.

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The Book Haul

FOGcon book haul

I went rather light on the book haul this year, as I was trying to keep my bookshelves from topping down and crushing me beneath a ginormous pile of books. My grabs:

  • Rolling in the Deep by Seanan McGuire – a limited edition, signed copy, which I didn’t realize at the time
  • Trafalgar by Angelica Gorodischer
  • The Neat Sheats, poetry by James Tiptree, Jr.
  • The Fantod Pack by Edward Gorey
  • and three editions of Fantasy & Science Fiction

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*sleepy, happy sigh*

FOGcon is one of my favorite events of the year, and already I’m looking forward to 2017. The theme next year will be Interstitial Spaces (intermediate spaces between one thing and another), which is a topic I find fascinating.


Jan 8 2016

Top Movies of 2015

Toward the end of the year, I didn’t seem to have much time for watching movies, but nevertheless there were some fabulous feature and short films that I’ve seen for the first time this year. As with my Top Reads, I’m organizing these based on categories.

Best Drama

Pariah (2011) is the story of a  17-year-old African American girl who hangs out at clubs with her openly lesbian friend Laura. Through the course of the film she begins to figure out her own identity. It’s a beautiful story of young love and family friction/love and the many ways a heart can be broken and healed.

Pariah-title-placard

Best Historical Picture

The Academy Award nominated film, Selma (2014), tells the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and several civil rights activists’ peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in the face of violent opposition. The aim of the March was to achieve fair access to voting access for African Americans. It shows the many layers of effort from multiple groups that enabled this march to happen successfully. The directing, cinematography, and performances throughout the film are fantastic.

selma-bridge movie still

Runner-up: Belle (2014) is the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of a slave and Captain John Lindsay, a British career naval officer. As the captain must travel to earn his living, he leaves his daughter as a free woman in the care of his uncle, a high ranking judge of the U.K. courts. This beautiful movie reveals the conflicting nature of her position in which she is both loved by her family and an outcast in society.

Best Science Fiction Movie

A three way tie between The Martian (2015), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), and Ex Machina (2015) — all vastly different films, all great for vastly different reasons.

The Martian, a story about a single astronaut accidentally stranded on the hostile surface of Mars, provides a combination of intense moments with humor. This is combined with beautiful images of the Martian surface, red deserts and plains stretching to the horizon. It’s gorgeous and moving and hilarious and wonderful.

martian-gallery5-gallery-image

What I loved about Star Wars: The Force Awakens was how it was able to capture that elated joy I felt when I was young, watching A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Last Jedi over and over and over again. This new iteration went straight to the heart of what makes Star Wars great with a new cast of young heroes ready to take up the fight.

star-wars-force-awakens-rey-bb8

Ex Machina, meanwhile, is a much quieter movie, centering around only a handful of characters. In it a young engineer is recruited by an genius entrepreneur to perform a Turing test on a humanoid AI robot, named Ava. The movie intelligently explores the nature of humanity and consciousness. Alicia Vikander is amazing as Ava, bringing a subtle alieness to the character, even when she seems to look entirely human.

EX-MACHINA-screenshot

Best Post-Apocalyptic Movie

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) is a gorgeously filmed vision of the post-apocalyptic world. Although, lets be honest, it’s pretty much a single long car chase sequence across the wasteland. It’s a spectacular spectacle with beautifully choreographed stunts and action sequences. Mad Max is just as hard core as he’s ever been, and he gets to fight along side some amazingly bad ass women, not only Imperator Furiosa, but all of despot’s escaping wives. It’s one-note, perhaps, but it’s brilliant. The wasteland never looked so good.

mad max fury road

Best Horror Movie

A tie between The Devil’s Backbone /El espinazo del diablo (2001) and It Follows (2014).

The Devil’s Backbone, directed by Guillermo del Toro, is set during the Spanish Civil War, during which a 12-year-old Carlos is sent to a boy’s orphanage that is full of secrets. The imagery haunts from the start, with the image of a giant unexploded bomb shown standing in the center of the orphanage courtyard. The movie provides a steady eerie feeling that builds into a surprising conclusion.

the devil's backbone unexploded_bomb

It Follows is intensely creepy. The concept of a sexually transmitted monster, which on the surface sounds ridiculous, is handled with brilliant skill. Every bit of lighting combined with camera angles and music builds a growing sense of anxiety about this creature that never stops pursuing its intended target. I loved how the characters used their friendship to positive effect. When the main character’s friends could neither see nor believe in the creature, they didn’t waste their time doubting her. Instead, they recognized that she needed help and did what they could to provide that help. It’s an incredibly well done movie and one that caused me a few anxiety dreams after watching it.

It Follows movie still

Best Animated Film

Le Gouffre (2015) is a beautiful short film in which two young men face a chasm and find an industrious way to try to cross it. Rendered in CGI animation, a beautiful story of friendship and community evolves in just 10 minutes. You can watch it here.

le gouffre

Best Foreign Film

Wadjda (2012) is the first movie to be entirely filmed in Saudi Arabia and is the first film directed by a female Saudi director. It’s the story of a spunky young girl, named Wadjda, who wants her own a bicycle, even though considered indecent for a girl to ride. In order to get the money for the bike she wants, she joins a competition for learning and reciting the Koran. This movie is charming and the little girl Waad Mohammed who plays the main character is wonderful. I hope to see more work by director Haifaa Al-Mansour in the future.

Wadjda still image

Runner-up: In Circumstance (2011), filmed in Iran, two young women the strict rules that circle their lives in Tehran, Iran. Along the way, they fall in love with each other. There’s a sense of danger present even as they feel the most free, the impression that they are always being watched and judged. A beautiful and stylish film.

Best Documentary

Okay, so technically I only watched one documentary in 2015, but it was a really good documentary. In The Red Chapel / Kim Jong-Il’s Comedy Club (2009), two Danish Korean comedians, along with their manager, travel to North Korea in order to perform for the country’s National Theater. The aim of the trip is to discreetly reveal the disturbing nature of this totalitarian dictatorship, while also subtly poking fun at the regime during the comedy sketch routine. However, their plan quickly falters as their routine picked apart and replaced by a performance that suites the party line. The documentary has its flaws, but it fascinating in the way it moves from being, at first, unsettling but slightly humorous to being somewhat terrifying.

the-red-chapel

Honorable Mention: Best Worst Movie

The Barbarians (1987) is awful on so many levels and takes cheesy fantasy to amazing heights. It features beefcake twins with more glossy, well oiled muscles than any one person should rightly have.  Together with a scantily clad thief, they track down a magical ruby and defeat and evil band of barbarians. The villain has a unicorn horn strapped to his head. One of the heroes brays like a donkey when he’s excited. The dragon looks like a giant erect penis with a deranged Alf head (I’m not even kidding). The Barbarians is bad. It’s so, so bad. But it’s glorious in how bad it is.

What movies have you watched and loved in 2015?

 


Nov 20 2015

Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

From page one, I loved Uprooted by Naomi Novik. Every ten years a Dragon chooses a young maiden, but this is not the kind of dragon with scales or the kind who would eat her. He’s an ageless wizard in a tower, who keeps the darkness and malevolence of the Wood at bay in exchange for the service of a girl, whom he releases at the end of ten years (although none of the girls chose to return home after). Every one expects him to take Kasia, the most beautiful and brave and capable girl in the town, so when the time of the choosing comes and he chooses Agnieszka instead, it’s a great surprise to everyone, most especially Agnieszka herself.

It’s difficult to describe the plot of this book, because so much unfolds is packed away and then unfolded again over the course of the story. Amal El-Mohtar has in her review on NPR has a wonderful description of reading this book.

“Watching the plot develop is like watching time-lapse footage of a plant growing, unfurling leaves, gaining height and depth simultaneously: it’s an organic, vivacious development that builds seamlessly on what came before. Agnieszka’s training, her failures and successes in magic, her loneliness and fears and frustrations, all bud and blossom into new adventure even as the roots tangle into deeper complication: The ultimate source of the Wood’s malice.”

Although the story features sex and something like romance, the friendship between Agnieszka and Kasia is the true heart of this story. Having known each other all their lives, their friendship begins sweet, but delves into a deeper trust as all their petty jealousies and hidden anger laid bare over the course of the story. But throughout, they stay true to each other and they stay true to themselves, able to have their own emotional arcs, face their own inner demons, and realize their own strength and confidence.

There are so many other things I could say about this book, about how it plays with story telling and myth, how it focused more on the local village community than on royalty, how it relates a story of nature versus civilization, or maybe how explores the differences between linear versus organic styles of magic. This book is just so wonderfully layered and I’m sure there will be more to think about and reconsider when I come around to reading it again, but for the moment I just want to say that I love Novik’s writing style, how she manages to maker her lines seem at once so beautiful and at the same time so effortless. I melted into this story and I will be looking forward to exploring more of Novik’s work.

 


Jan 9 2015

Favorite New-to-me Movies of 2014

top movies seen in 2014It’s been a weird year for movies for me, as I didn’t go to the theaters much like I normally do. In fact I’ve only seen a few 2014 movies. This may also be a contributing factor as to why our of the 49 movies I’ve seen this year, I outright hated nine of them (high for me), just wasn’t into a dozen more, and liked but didn’t love many others — so, I had a hard time coming up with a top ten and, in the process, of trying to form my list, I realized there were only five that I really loved this year.

The Top Five

1. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – It’s the group of antagonists become friends become chosen family trope that really gets me here. Plus fun action space story and oodles of fantastic music.

2. Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) – I love subtly speculative indie films and this one hit all the right notes of heart and humor.

3. The Host / Gwoemul (2006) – Intense, funny, and hiding tons of social commentary, this was a fantastic movie.

4. Planet of the Apes (1968) – While the special effects and movie makeup don’t hold up to modern standards, the story is still powerful, complex, and compelling.

5. Her (2013) — I thought the concept of this movie was strange when I first heard about it, and I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did and I appreciated it even more after seeing it a second time around.

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Jan 8 2015

Favorite Reads of 2014!

Favorite reads of 2014

The Top Ten

1. The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan
2. Among Others by Jo Walton
3. Red Shirts by Jihn Scalzi
4. The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson
5. Contact by Carl Sagan
6. The City & The City by China Mielville
7. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
8. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
9. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
10. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

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