Read This: Inside-Outside by Philip Jose Farmer

June 12, 2009

insideoutside01FROM JASON’S REPLENISHED BOOKSHELF — Take heart, the banana-hammocks shown on the cover are never actually described inside the book. Or if they were, I repressed those memories.

No, what gets top priority description-wise in Philip Jose Farmer‘s Inside-Outside is the vicious, artificial world of Hell, where humans and demons suffer side-by-side.

It’s a cavernous and barren dessert domain, revealed mid-novel to actually be (spoilers here, folks) the hollowed inside of an asteroid where souls are imprisoned more or less as laboratory animals at the whim of a highly-advanced alien race.

In many ways, it’s a pre-treading of Farmer’s Riverworld Saga — not a re-treading, because he published Inside-Outside seven years prior to To Your Scattered Bodies Go. It also seems to foreshadow the route writer-director Alex Royas would take more than two decades later in Dark City (1998).

Farmer gets credit for being a master of American science fiction, but in my mind he’s not so much a crafter of great stories as he is a crafter of great fantasy settings. A good 80 percent of Inside-Outside is spent tromping through the bowels of Hell and meeting its challenges, not actually getting answers to the teleological puzzles the netherworld presents.

insideoutside02This is where Farmer succeeds: His version of the afterlife is like the third panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights brought to life. It’s debased. It’s surreal. It’s pain and doubt and vice at every turn.

But it’s also a tangible world ruled by its own peculiar physical laws, not some protoplasmic spiritual dimension, even though there are unearthly monsters a-plenty.

Corporeal though it is, Hell is lavished with religious iconography. I mentioned the demons; there is also a baffling and perhaps ghoulish Christ figure, stone idols, sewers filled with Inferno-esque denizens, the curse of eternal life through resurrection from the dead, machine-made “souls” reminiscent of Scientology’s so-called thetans, and (for all intents) omnipotent alien “gods” with their own agendas.

As well as Farmer creates his environment, he doesn’t do a terrific job of sculpting characters. There’s nobody to like in this novel. We have a protagonist, sure, but he’s a spiteful, violent, selfish brute. Jack Cull is not really a hero, although technically you could probably say he’s on a hero’s quest.

Cull is looking for hope, but by book’s end he does not find it — in fact, he finds the opposite, that he is doomed to help his masters subjugate other races to a grinding, pathetic Purgatorio for their own supposedly “ethical” but still very, very flawed reasons.

And it’s all due to a big mistake. With a big twist in the final 10 pages (again, spoilers), we find that Hell is not really the afterlife… Cull and everyone else are alien-made souls who have never lived, and who were injected with false memories of time on Earth. The planet has long since been destroyed by nuclear war, and there will never be more human babies born in which Cull and his companions’ souls may be placed.

Which makes for a fun trip down the peroverbial rabbit hole.

It’s a good read for atmosphere, if nothing else. And at just 169 pocket-sized pages, it’s a quick read (I think I buzzed through in five or six hours). That’s not bad for $1 spent on the spinner rack at my local Half Price Books.

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Read This: The Tripods Trilogy by John Christopher

January 11, 2009
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FROM JASON’S OVERFLOWING BOOKCASE — If you survived a low-level college literature course, or ever read Watchmen, then you’ve probably at least heard of Percy Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias.

The short verse — written 191 years ago today — describes a broken statue of Ramesses the Great, ruler of Egypt, and the desolate desert it inhabits. Shelley’s theme is that the pharaoh’s empire and all the work of his 66-year reign are now turned to dust. In the wind.

A month after Shelley’s poem was published in 1818, his friend Horace Smith published a competing poem of the same name and subject. The second half of his work wonders whether centuries from now, the “modern” civilization will appear just as anciently alien to our descendants as Ramesses’ appears to us.

“We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.”

I bring this up because I just finished re-reading John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy, science fiction novels written between 1967 and 1968 for young readers. I first encountered these books about age nine, and my wife was clever enough to hunt them down as stocking-stuffers this Christmas. I was very happy with her.

Like much sci-fi and fantasy novels of the 20th century, Christopher’s are re-skinnings of the old Joseph Campbell heroic monomyth. The young male protagonist, Will, is discontent with the tripods, huge War of the Worlds-inspired machines who rule over a post-apocalyptic Earth, and must journey the path of “the Hero With a Thousand Faces.”

The set-up: the tripods graft mind-controlling mesh “caps” onto the heads of humans at age 14. The caps keep people complacent and incurious, causing society to revert to pre-industrial agrarianism. There are no more large cities. There are no more machines. There is no more war, but neither is there invention or exploration.

At the start of the first book in the series, The White Mountains, a vagrant named Ozymandias approaches Will and tells him freedom fighters still exist who fight the tripods. They live in the Swiss Alps; following Campbell’s formula, Ozymandias charges Will to leave his tiny English village and quest across France to find the last human stronghold.

Like the hunter of Smith’s poem, Will and his incidental traveling companions come across the ruins of a 20th century city — not London, but Paris, destroyed 100 years past. They are amazed by horseless carriages, a subway system, and wrist watches that seem like magic to their limited technological understanding.

These books have a real My Side of the Mountain vibe, in that they focus on pre-teenage boys who choose to live apart from establishment and provide for themselves. (I’m sure I will end up writing someday about how much I love that book.) Along the way, Will and his friends are forced to contemplate the value of humanism and self-determinism. They have to decide whether it’s better to embrace their own manifest destiny with its inevitable pitfalls and pain, or to have the tripods decide humanity’s destiny in exchange for peace and security.

And you know what ol’ Benjamin Franklin said about that: “He who would trade liberty for some temporary security, deserves neither liberty nor security.” It’s funny how science fiction tends to be progressive along those lines, instead of regressive like religion.

That gave me a lot to chew on at all of nine years old. And there’s no shame in reading these books as an adult, either. If you like them, there is also a prequel titled When the Tripods Came, which explores how the tripods used subliminal messages to spark the initial takeover of Earth. It was written 20 years after the launch of the series; I recommend reading them in the order in which they were published.


Spore Creature Creator leaked, my night consumed

June 15, 2008

The Spore Creature Creator Demo has been leaked ahead of time (it’s supposed to launch June 17). Download and try it out. The thing has some kinks, takes some getting used to, is fun to play with, and generally helped me waste two hours tonight. The number of creature parts is limited, but there’s enough there to help spawn a few thousand variations of xeno-whatsits.

I’ve got to say — if the rest of Spore is as engaging as this tiny little portion, it will be well worth the price. So far, I’ve only gotten to play with the tinker-toy part. I can’t wait to get my hands on an actual free-roaming environment with some of these bad boys and see how they interact with other animals.

It will be interesting to see what traits succeed with Spore’s sharing mechanism. What works better in a swamp — lobster claws, insect mandibles, or primate hands? Is speed more important than brute strength? Can a venom spitter beat a serrated horn? Can cyclopians survive well? Are tactile adaptations a sure way to get a dominant species? How much difference do color and markings make?

I can’t wait to see how detailed and in-depth the game designers have gone. I’m usually the kind of guy to wait until the first price drop to buy a game, but I’m getting this one on launch day. Already, I can see it combines everything I loved about Legos with everything cool about evolution. Take that, creationists!

EDIT: Andrew here. Just thought I would add one of my creatures that I created today:


Indiana Jones: The Glimpse of Hope that Disappoints. Now with 100% more spoilers!

May 28, 2008

ADVENTURING FROM ANDREWS DISBELIEF — I had high hopes for Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but I made a mistake: I forgot to take some sort of prescription medication before I went to the movie theatre.

The new movie, the fourth in the adventures of Dr. Jones, completely junks the historical grounding of the original films and takes a step toward paranoid conspiracy. There are aliens. Seriously.

Not only that, but the aliens were crystal skeletons who had a space ship under the Mayan ruins — a fully functional space ship at that. To make matters worse, George Lucas had to involve Area 51 in the damned story.

All in all, I just find the way they approached the subject matter lacked the taste or tact that made the first three films great. It was a shotgun blast to the face and I despised every minute of it.

Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is nominally about Indy on another archaeological adventure. But as we find out in the first ten or so minutes of the film, the movie is deeply flawed and nowhere near the classic greatness of Raiders or Last Crusade. The film begins the very first shot with a close up of a horrendously animated CG gopher. The very first thought the popped into my head was “Oh, fuck.” Unfortunately, it all goes down hill from there.

What appealed to me about the original Indiana Jones films was deep historical backgrounds that the plots were grounded in. Sure, some of the plot elements were a little supernatural (Ark of the Covenant, Holy Grail, removal of a beating heart out of a man’s chest), but they were done tastefully, in my opinion. However, even deeper was the historical context of the plot. These stories have persisted for centuries and have captured the imaginations of the human race. They are, in the most literal sense, the myths which are the foundation of our culture.

It wasn’t all horrible though, there were definitely some relative high points to the film. The action sequences were well-choreographed and the CG effects were certainly top-notch. The CG was still noticeable, probably to the dismay of Spielberg. There was also that witty Jones dialog as well. One scene in the library stood our particularly well in that regard. I feel like the acting could probably have been better but I’m going to chalk that one up to sub-par writing that was too dependent upon the already mentioned Jones-isms and a loss of focus on plot and character development.

Overall, I would probably say that this is a decent action flick but not worthy of the reputable name it carries. Most of the time I felt that I was watching yet another sequel to The Mummy with only a few of the traits that made the original Indy flicks great shimmering through. I would probably recommend that you rent/Netflix this film. If you decide to see it in theatres, make sure you don’t go in with your hopes up.


Week of Cartoons – Day 2: The Best of Marvin the Martian

March 24, 2008

marvin01.jpgFROM JASON’S SECRET BASE ON THE RED PLANET — Okay, so I’m cheating. There were only ever five original shorts made starring Marvin the Martian, so a “best of” list is really damned stupid.

Marvin was created by (who else) Chuck Jones in 1948 for Haredevil Hare, which I dislike intensely because the prototype for Marvin’s voice is horrid. It’s a stupid, almost meek voice — not the superior nasal condescension we’ve come to love. You can still watch that episode on YouTube, but I refuse to post it here.

Marvin’s never named in the old shorts; he was supposedly called Commander X-2 around Warner Brothers but his name changed when the company decided to start marketing him in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He had instant appeal to kids like me, who were obsessed with outer space and serialized sci-fi.


Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century

Here it is, right at the top — the absolute best Marvin cartoon, and the only one starring Daffy Duck (and Porky, for that matter). The rest star Bugs Bunny, but I think Daffy’s righteous rage is awesome.

The Earth’s supply of Illudium Phosdex, the shaving cream atom, is dangerously low. It’s up to Duck Dodgers to go to Planet X and claim its resources in the name of Earth. The only problem is that Mars sends a certain conquerer as well.

Incidentally, the Martian flag is a red circle on a white background. This proves conclusively that Martians are Japanese. And at 5:53, is that an interociter?


Hare-way to the Stars

Vodpod videos no longer available.

This is the one that gives Duck Dodgers a run for its money. Bugs wanders into a rocket by accident and gets blasted to an Escher-esque world of glass pyramids, antennas, and zig-zagging red space platforms. By a stroke of good timing, he interrupts Marvin just as our Martian legionnaire is getting ready to use Illudium PU-36 to destroy the Earth (it’s blocking his view of Venus).

Apparently, Martians are very long-lived, because Marvin says he’s been working on PU-36 for 2,000 years.

This episode is all about futurist concept art depicted in a very 1960s World’s Fair style. It also features the just-add-water aliens on scooters, which is a priceless sequence.


Mad as a Mars Hare

Astro-rabbit Bugs Bunny is tricked into exploring the surface of Mars and runs into a stubborn native who doesn’t want the red planet befouled by Earthlings. Marvin gets the drop on Bugs but accidentally misfires his time-space gun, mutating Bugs into a Hulk bunny.


The Hasty Hare

Vodpod videos no longer available.

General E=mc² sends Marvin with Commander K-9 on a mission to bring back one live Earth creature to Mars. Bugs Bunny is once again his target and succeeds in the first minute or so in making Marvin say, “You have made me very angry!”

How Buck Rogers can you get, you ask? Well, Marvin and K-9 break out the ACME straight jacket-launching bazooka.

Also, I just want to point out that at the end, when Bugs offers to sell a flying saucer with only 3 billion miles on it, that means the ship has traveled 0.00051 light years. Of course, at its closest, Mars is only 36 million miles from Earth (or 250 million miles at the greatest gap in the planets’ orbits). That means that theoretically Marvin’s ship could have gone from Mars to Earth 83 times already.


Week of Cartoons – Day 1: Dino Riders (1988)

March 23, 2008

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Part 2 | Part 3

FROM JASON’S 13″ KITCHEN TV — There are two things that 8-year-old boys like: Dinosaurs and outer space. When I was that age, I couldn’t be bothered with the big pirates versus ninjas question. I just wanted a triceratops mounted with a laser cannon.

Along came Dino Riders and my world was complete.

Transformers had already set the standard for using cartoons as 22-minute ads for toys, and Dino Riders called on Peter Cullen and Frank Welker — again — to pretty much re-skin the eternal Transformers struggle with a whole bucket of prehistoric awesome. It was by all accounts a flop, with just 14 episodes made and 13 hitting the air. But its brevity belied the widespread appeal of the toys, which somehow managed to stay in my bedroom until the mid-90s.

The plot, briefly (it’s part of the show opener anyway): The Valorians are a peaceful people fighting the good fight against the evil Rulons. When the Valorians use an experimental time-travel warp drive to escape their attackers, the Rulons lock on a tractor beam. Both factions are hurled back in time to prehistoric Earth, where they use their advanced technology to carry on the eternal struggle.

Oh, did I mention that the good guys are telepaths and the bad guys are snake men, ant men, and shark men?

Dino Riders had the same premise flaw as all other 1980s cartoons: There were evil characters doing evil for the sake of being evil. There was no other motivation. The Valorians’ arch-nemesis, Emporer Krulos, was a Cobra Commander clone and just wanted to rule the universe for the sake of having power. There were no shades of gray in the Cold War mindset. America considered itself the soldier of the light, and it needed an Emmanuel Goldstein caricature to be the soldier of the dark.

The show was laced with a pretty clichĂ© moral of universal harmony prevailing over coercion. The Valorians befriended the planet’s dinosaurs, forging alliances. The Rulons use force, creating mind-control devices called “brain boxes” to enslave vicious dinos.

There was no historical cohesiveness about the show, which mixed a few hundred million years worth of dinos into the same setting. In fact, there were primitive humans living alongside the dinosaurs, which in retrospect makes me wonder if stupid Young Earth creationists had something to do with the show.

Interestingly, the writers took great care to align docile and defensive saurians with the Valorians (stegasaurus, diplodocus, dimetrodon, brontosaurus). Meanwhile, the Rulons got dinos that were more or less tanks (T-Rex, ankylosaurus, and several triceratops-ish species). They also tried to evenly match the capabilities of the two factions; Transformers had always bothered me a bit because the Decepticons had all the jets and the Autobots were stuck with ground transportation (mostly). Dino Riders gave each side flying dinos.


TV advertisement for the toys.

My parents were at first a little upset about all the shooting of lasers and such (they were always prudish about cartoon violence), but finally caved and bought the toys because they were marginally educational. These were no cheap Chinese hunks of plastic. The dinos were extremely well-constructed and tremendously detailed, much larger-scaled than typical toys of the time (I never got the brontosaurus, which was HUGE), and often came with turrets or seats for multiple action figures.

I wish this concept would have worked out and that the stories would have been a bit more mature. Had the animation been a little more detailed, Dino Riders would have made an incredible anime cross-over hit like RoboTech, and I would have been a rabid fanatic. Oh well.

“We’re not Valorians anymore. We’re DINO RIDERS!”


Reading recommendation: Gateway by Frederik Pohl

January 8, 2008

gateway.pngFROM JASON’S SAGGING BOOKSHELF — I keep telling Andrew that Rocky isn’t about boxing, Cube isn’t about the traps, and Top Gun isn’t about jets. They are about the characters’ inner conflicts, and the rest is just backdrop.

Just to be clear, though, Jurassic Park is about dinosaurs. (Clever girl!)

Frederik Pohl’s 1977 science fiction novel Gateway isn’t really about space exploration. It’s about psychological scars. The mystery of the alien race known as the Heechee, the plight of Earth’s starving masses, and the strange faster-than-light ships used to explore the universe are just there to shed light on our hero’s repressed memories.

The book takes place largely in three locations — the most important is a psychologist’s office. That the analyst just happens to be a computer named somewhat surreptitiously after Sigmund Freud is just a bonus.

Other parts of the book take place on a space station built by aliens in the shell of a hollowed-out asteroid, and aboard the cramped space pods the aliens docked there thousands of years ago.

With the asteroid (called Gateway) as a launch point, humans are using the spacecraft to explore the universe. The only problems are that we don’t know how the ships work, how to choose a destination, and the chances of coming back from a mission are 50-50.

Pohl gets my respect for that brave decision. In most sci-fi novels, Man is in control of his destiny, roaming the galaxy at will. In Gateway, Earth has become overcrowded and the only way to survive is to take to the stars. Manifest destiny is absolutely necessary, but Man can’t decide how it happens. The passengers who take to the alien spacecraft are helpless and have no influence over their fates.

The real action, though, takes place in the murky confines of Bob Broadhead’s mind — except for one crucial and plot-defining scene against the backdrop of a black hole.

I have nothing but good comments for Gateway. Pohl creates a full and believable universe in a relatively short read, and none of it is clumsily executed. He takes a cue from Jaws and refuses to reveal the elusive Heechee aliens to us (though he does go there in later books). We are left ignorant of their origins, intentions, or whereabouts — and that means it’s much easier to identify with the floundering human explorers.

With that huge mystery unsolved, we’re left only with empirical clues about the Heechee. We know they were here in our solar system, we know that they left advanced equipment behind, we know they were roughly bipedal but physiologically much different than humans, and we know that they are long gone.

That gives Pohl a certain amount of freedom. Rather than have to focus on exotic descriptions of the aliens, their language, and their movements, he can spend his time examining Bob’s choices. Will he brave the dangers of space travel? Will his relationships survive? Does he grow? Why does he have such a strange mental block about very specific memories? What happened out there in the inky black of space, anyway?

The best thing about Gateway by far, though is a gimmick. Interspersed throughout the book are pages that have nothing to do with the story; instead, they are full of excerpts from this future world: Classified ads, instructions on how to use the space station’s showers, safety rules for aboard ships, bits of BASIC-like programming lines from the psychology computer, reports about previous missions, and transcripts from lectures about astrophysics.

Example: MISSION REPORT

Vessel 3-31, Voyage 08D27. Crew C. Pitrin, N. Ginza, J. Krabbe.

Transit time out 19 days 4 hours. Position uncertain, vicinity (+-2 l.y.) Zeta Tauri.

Summary: Emerged in transpolar orbit planet .88 Earth radius at .4 A.U. Planet possessed 3 detected small satellites. Six other planets inferred by computer logic. Primary K7.

*Landing made. This planet has evidently gone through a warming period. There are no ice caps, and the present shorelines do not appear very old. No detected signs of habitation. No intelligent life.

*Finescreen scanning located what appeared to be a Heechee rendezvous station in our orbit. We approached it. It was intact. In forcing an entrance it exploded and N. Ginza was killed. Our vessel was damaged and we returned, J. Krabbe dying en route. No artifacts were secured. Biotic samples from planet destroyed in damage to vessel.

These scraps don’t do anything for the plot but they give a very mundane, very intimate look at the sociological conditions of Pohl’s made-up future. It’s one of those perfect touches that balances the hard science and the lofty concept, like Aunt Beru’s blue milk in Star Wars. Here’s another example that gives Gateway credibility:

CLASSIFIEDS

AREN’T THERE any English-speaking nonsmokers on Gateway to fill out our crew? Maybe you want to shorten your life (and our life support reserves!)but we two don’t. 88-775.

WE DEMAND prospector representation on Gateway Corporation Board! Mass meeting tomorrow 1300 Level Babe. Everyone welcome!

SELECT FLIGHTS tested, whole-person way from your dreams. 32–page book tells how, $10. Consultations, $25. 88-139.