Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Mohs Scale of SF Hardness

(cross-posted from DKos)

Jules Verne, the story goes, disliked being compared to his English rival, H.G. Wells. In an interview he once said:

I do not see the possibility of comparison between his [H. G. Wells] work and mine. We do not proceed in the same manner. It occurs to me that his stories do not repose on a very scientific basis. ... I make use of physics. He invents. I go to the moon in a cannon-ball, discharged from a cannon. Here there is no invention. He goes to Mars in an airship, which he constructs of a metal which does not obey the law of gravitation. Ça c'est très joli ... but show me this metal. Let him produce it.

In this comment we can see a tension that has existed almost from the beginning of Modern Science Fiction: the conflict between Hard and Soft SF.

Verne had a deep interest in science and technology; and his publisher was devoted to producing educational works for family audiences; so it's not surprising that his works would have a strong didactic vibe to them. He called his novels "Voyages Extraordinaires" ("Extarordianry Journeys"), and each book was a geography lesson and an adventure combined. He would often consult his brother, an engineer, to get his figures accurate when, say, calculating how much pressure the hull of the Nautilus would have to withstand, or how much force would be required to propel an artillery shell at escape velocity.

Wells, on the other hand, was more interested in people and society than in places and devices. He'd use scientific ideas and jumping-off points for stories, but for the most part was unconcerned with the nuts 'n' bolts of how the science worked.

Now, granted, this over-simplification does injustice to both men. Verne was no purist when it came to science and was certainly not above fudging things when it came to the plot. He would certainly been aware that the force of his space cannon in From the Earth to the Moon would have killed its passengers; and the entire plot of A Journey to the Center of the Earth depends on throwing out nearly everything 19th Century science knew about geology -- and the narrator comes out and says so, frequently! And Wells, although he does not get out the slide rule and rattle off figures with Verne's persnicketiness, has enough familiarity with the scientific ideas with which he plays to give us some grounding and the sense that he knows what he's talking about. The chapter explaining Time as the Fourth Dimension from The Time Machine is essential reading for any fan of Time Travel stories; and Griffin's description of his invisibility from The Invisible Man has just enough scientific technobabble sprinkled in to make it plausible... at least for the span of the novel.

Hugo Gernsback, publisher of Amazing Stories, coined the term "Science Fiction" (although he preferred to call it "scientifiction"). Gernsback was a radio experimenter and and inventor as well as a magazine publisher, and like Verne before him, he saw science fiction as a way to educate the public about science, and insisted on scientific accuracy in the stories he published. It bugged him when readers seemed to prefer more fantastic stories with dubious educational value.

John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science-Fiction, reigned over what has been called the Golden Age of Science Fiction and was possibly the most influential person on the genre of the early 20th Century. He insisted that his writers have a strong grasp of both the gadgetry and technology of SF, but also on the human part of the equation and how the science will affect society. Campbell's protegés included Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and other greats of the Golden Age.

These men established the ground rules for the the genre of Science Fiction and forged the assumption that there must be a solid foundation of Science underneath the fantastic Fiction.

But as time went on, things began to shift. I think part of it was that science had advanced to the point where it could not be as easily grasped by an adolescent with a high school knowledge of physics; part of it, no doubt, was that Einstein's Theory of Relativity had forever banished Interstellar Travel to the realms of Fantasy and Handwavium. But I bigger part, I think, was that a new generation of writers had come up who were looking beyond the territory staked out by the Golden Age writers for new worlds to conquer. They turned from the "hard" sciences like chemistry and phyisics and began looking more at "soft" sciences like sociology. Even Campbell himself, always seeking to challenge both his writers and his readers, moved more and more to areas like psionics and paraspychology and even mysticism in the 1950s and '60s.

About the same time, science fiction began to filter more into popular culture; first in comics, then in radio, movies and television. In these media there wasn't time to explain the theory behind a rocket. As Gene Roddenberry put it, whe Joe Friday pulls out his gun, he doesn't pause to explain the chemical reaction that propells the bullet. And so in these media, science took a back seat to storytelling, and Hugo Gernsback rolled over in his orbit.

If one is so inclined, it is possible to sort these out into a scale of "hardness", much like the Mohs scale in geology rates the comparative hardness of different types of rocks. In fact the website TV Tropes has done just that: (WARNING: do not click on this link unless you have several hours to kill!!!) At the hardest end of the scale we have Reality, with no speculative science thrown in at all. Next we have things extrapolated from and plausible according to current technology. The further along we go, the more hypothetical we get, and the more impossibilities we are willing to accept. At the softest end, we have the type of sci-fi described in Mystery Science Theater 3000:

"If you're wondering how they eat and breathe
And other science facts;
Just repeat to yourself, it's just a show;
I should really just relax."

When I was in college, many of my friends in the campus Science Fiction Club were Hard SF fans; fans of Heinlein and Asimov and Niven; the disciples of John W. Campbell who insisted on having a rigorous foundation of science undergriding their fiction. And maybe some of them were even a bit snobbish about it. The Oldest Member of the group when I was there liked to sneer at the term "Sci-Fi", which he felt should only be applied to the kind of garbage that usually came under that name in popular culture. He liked to quote the limerick:

"You ask me the reason why,
I call it 'S-F' not "Sci-Fi"
I think there's a fine line
Between Robert Heinlein
And 'Son of the Two-Headed Fly'

It was a kind of transitional period back then, between the pre-Sputnik era when science fiction was considered "That crazy Buck Rogers stuff" and the present day when it's pretty much mainstream. I think some of us were sensitive about others labeling science fiction as inferior to "real" literature. I know I was.

And so I became a SF zealot. Science fiction was NOT escapist drivel because it was based on SCIENCE! It was focused not on the past but on the Future!

Except... when I stopped to think about it, that seemed awfully pretentious. And I realized that a lot of my favorite science fiction was not based on hard science at all, or was based on old, outdated science that was no longer considered accurate, like my beloved old Jules Vernes. I realized that what I treasured most about science fiction was not that it is the Fiction of Science, but rather that it is the Fiction of the Imagination.

Indeed, that is one of the reasons why my friends considered 'SF' a better abbreviation for the genre than 'Sci-Fi'; because it could equally stand for 'Speculative Fiction', or for 'Science Fantasy'.

That was Hugo Gernsback's guilty little secret. There were basilisk eggs in the cuckoo's nest. The Garden of Science which he had so optimistically planned had tares sown among the wheat. Mixed in with his Engineers' Tales of formulae and equations, were also stories of Magic, of Whimsey, of Demons and Sorcerors, and of Dragons.

Some of the Hard SF Masters of the Golden Age wrote fantasy as well; but their approach was informed by their appreciation for science. L. Sprague de Camp wrote a novella in which an engineer finds himself trapped in fairyland. At first he considers it a "Land of Unreason" because it does not follow the laws of physics that he understands. Eventually, he comes to realize that magic does follow laws; he just need to suss out what they are. His Harold Shea stories, written with Fletcher Pratt, uses a similar conceit, that other magical worlds can be reached through the use of higher mathematics. Robert Heinlein wrote a novella entitled "Magic, Inc." set in a world where magic and technology co-exist, and Poul Anderson developed the same theme in his novel Operation Chaos. And if we go back to a previous century, probably the most famous writer of Victorian Era fantasy, Lewis Carrol, was in his day job a professor of mathematics.

And of course, we can't forget Arthur C. Clarke who formulated the ultimate loophole for writers wishing to slip fantasy into SF: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor passes

Nothing can be said here that hasn't been said before, but Elizabeth Taylor deserved every accolade and praise offered. In death we mourn the loss of such an unique beauty, and beautiful soul.


Monday, March 21, 2011

COMICS: FX Books 1 and 2 Reviewed

FX Volumes 1 and 2
Writing Wayne Osborne
Art John Byrne
Published by IDW
(Review copies provided by SphinxGroup attn: Lys Fulda)

I hate the phrase “for what it is” when reviewing, because the assumption then becomes that what I am reviewing isn’t good, unto its self. That is, by saying so it is deserving of some sort of apology at the beginning to set the playing field to even. So I won’t say that. Because there is a conceit here, that super heroes exist, and that the magic of such is not so odd as to be mind boggling unto itself. Seeing someone fight a giant gorilla, or fight movie monsters in public is odd but, by no means is it “fantastical”. So beginning from a point where I acknowledge that conceit, I move on.

FX is about young heroes, a world where magic exists, and that the powers of the Gods of the age of myth and legends of Greece are still affecting the lives of individuals. The powers of the characters are not altogether new, but feel to be fresh ones. One character is able to wield a sword of power, or propel himself with flight as if an aircraft by force of will and imagination. Another has telepathy, and telekinesis.

One plot is really about introducing the characters, to their world, to the powers they have, and to the villain they face, behind all the commotion. Another takes the friends to a new world where they are challenged by beasts from prehistory, various humanoids, evil doers, and teenage hormones?

The art by John Byrne in book one had moments of large, epic, excitement. There were some issues with wonky anatomy I thought, but overall, the work was really good. I liked what was done and for the most part I thought that the art felt new, and rather well done. The only issues I had were some of the kids looking more like shrunken adults, but, this is a comic, not a photo, so I am fine with it. The art by Uko Smith was seriously fine. It was very stylistically superior to most art depicting super heroes, and by far was enjoyable to look at and read the story through.

The writing, while at times was a bit too tied to the super hero template, was at the very least good, and most often I found it well done and entertaining. I think the characters were well designed and thought out, and the whole cast of characters seemed well wrought.

But, while the work isn’t perfect, it is quite good. In fact, I’d like more of these to be in existence. It was something of a disappointment, in a good way, to come to the end of volume two and have no more to read.

ROBOTIKA Books 1 and 2 Reviewed

Books 1 and 2
Alex Sheikman
Published by Archaia

I’ve really lingered over this review. I lingered because I like Alex Sheikman very much, feel indebted to him for his work on my book A LIFE OF RAVENS and want to promote his work, in general, not just on Robotika. But I know people won’t understand what he has created, and I’ve been called a sycophant before when in fact I just like things enthusiastically.

The story thus far of Robotika is less about the characters, although they have various flaws and virtues, as it is a wonderful trip through a world that is no longer what it was, and never will be again, or will it. Three cybernetic, robotic samurai go through the vast wastes of the world, fighting and seeking to bring peace. They are on a journey that is in part spiritual, as in a quest for their own identity. They are on a physical journey that is through a brutally violent world, and thus their armored hearts and minds are imperative to survive. And lastly, they are actors upon a stage, where the creative talent, Alex Sheikman is showing us a world that only he could create, at the same time as paying homage to the westerns and French comics he no doubt absorbed and made into single form.

As such, let me say, that I love Robotika, I enjoy the zen like appeal of wandering the desert in search for more than just gold, or water. The zen qualities go beyond the theme, they exist in every aspect of this work. I find it to be a masterpiece of beautiful art, but, a true walk about in color and on paper that can only come off as insular, unless you’ve been there yourself.

I have been there. The quest for humanity, by robots, in a wasteland is inspiring to me.

Sheikman’s work is beautiful, read it for what it truly is, and you’ll get a lot out of it. I did.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Ten Things I love that are Japanese

I was trying to think of a way to encourage people to donate to Red Cross to help earthquake and tsunami victims, but realized, my words probably wouldn't be enough.

As I've stated in this blog before, Japan is very important to me. And I am very moved by the stories I've read and watched from Japan in this crisis, but also, worried and somewhat depressed by the situation. So I decided to instead offer up something that might interest you in Japanese things, and by that maybe look into how amazing a place it is.

And then to donate to help.

Japan is a place of many beautiful scenes, as an island country made of mountains, plains, and streams, it is surrounded by scenes that boggle the mind. Cherry Blossoms, Mount Fuji and ancient buildings are just three aspects of that beauty.

Taiko drums are played in ways that stir the soul. Used since earliest historic memory, they are the music that stirs the samurai spirit.
The Seven Samurai is my favorite film. It is my favorite film for many different reasons, among them, the acting, the story, and the incredible cinematography.
Nothing comes close to beer perfection to me, as does Sapporo, but, particularly draft Sapporo.
I am aware that people have various ideas of what sushi is, or should be. As long as it is on my plate, I don't care what it is called, I crave it.
Godzilla or Gojira is entertaining and a great metaphor at times for Japan, Nuclear weapons and energy, and War. I love the Big G.

Sumotori, gentleman of strength pushing and pulling, trying to displace the opponent is both primal, and civilized. I find it stirring, and beautiful, and violent.
I think Japanese women can be outstandingly beautiful. Akemi Negishi is just one of many who are so lovely upon my eyes.

The Shakuhachi flute and Zen gardens move me. I find solace and beauty in them.

I've met and had friends of many people from Japan or of Japanese descent. I've never found them to be anything but wonderful people. Some of that is just the luck of the draw since there are assholes in every culture, and race and ethnicity... but, I think a lot has to do with the Japanese culture of politeness. And I find it extraordinarily beautiful.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Battle of Destiny: A short review/preview

I interviewed Chuck Dixon about his new work Battle of Destiny and found the concept and art samples intriguing. Thanks to Lys Fulda over at SphinxGroup I was able to read a preview of the work.

Based upon reading half of the work * the whole of the preview* I can say, without any caveats that anyone interested in a story of power, destiny and strong personalities cast into conflict, would or should completely dig this work. It is a biblical tale, but it is also one that functions as history, and a lesson in what we do being what we are. Being called to lead is one thing, living out that calling is an entirely different and higher thing. Chuck’s writing is apt, and Aaron Minier’s art, while not necessarily my cup of tea, is still quite good at illustrating action, and drama.

From the publisher:

In the year 1000 BCE, two young men, Saul - the newly appointed King of Israel - and David - a shepherd, living far from the world of royalty - discover their destinies will lead one to supplant the other. This is the Old Testament story of two men's struggle with the knowledge of their destiny - and a Nation whose future is held in the balance.

Chuck Dixon Writer
Aaron Minier Artist

Product Details
* Paperback: 104 pages
* Publisher: Ape Entertainment (May 10, 2011)
* Language: English
* ISBN-10: 1934944297
* ISBN-13: 978-1934944295


Saturday, March 5, 2011

Cowboys, Indians, Heroes & Villains...

...where the West began.

Eureka Productions is pleased to announce the release of WESTERN CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume Twenty, the newest volume in the GRAPHIC CLASSICS® series of comics adaptations of great literature.

WESTERN CLASSICS features an adaptation of Zane Grey’s grand western prototype, “Riders of the Purple Sage”, illustrated by Cynthia Martin. Plus stories by Bret Harte, Willa Cather, Gertrude Atherton and John G. Neihardt, with art and adaptations by Trina Robbins, John Findley, Arnold Arre, George Sellas, Reno Maniquis and Ryan Huna Smith. Also an early Hopalong Cassidy story illustrated by original "Hoppy" newspaper strip artist Dan Spiegle, and a comic western by Conan creator Robert E. Howard.

GRAPHIC CLASSICS are available in bookstores, comics shops, or direct from the publisher at

“These are handsomely-crafted books presenting terrific stories.””
— Tony Isabella, Comics Buyer's Guide

“A splendidly inventive series.”
— Malcolm Jones, Newsweek

“In short, every volume is highly recommended.’”
— Paul Buhle, Rain Taxi

WESTERN CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume Twenty
Edited by Tom Pomplun
Published March 2011, Eureka Productions
Distributed by Diamond Book Distributors
(ISBN 978-0-9787919-9-5)
144 pgs, 7 x 10", paperback, full color, $17.95

The Graphic Classics series:
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: H.G. WELLS (978-0-9746648-3-5)
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: H.P. LOVECRAFT (978-0-9746648-9-7)
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: MARK TWAIN (978-0-9787919-2-6)
HORROR CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume Ten (978-0-9746648-1-1)
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: O. HENRY (978-0-9746648-2-8)
ADVENTURE CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume Twelve (978-0-9746648-4-2)
GOTHIC CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume Fourteen (978-0-9787919-0-2)
FANTASY CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume Fifteen (978-0-9787919-3-3)
SCIENCE FICTION CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume Seventeen (978-0-9787919-7-1)
CHRISTMAS CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume Nineteen (978-0-9825630-1-4)
WESTERN CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume Twenty (978-0-9787919-9-5)

How to Read Toucan Sam

(cross-posted from DKos)

I really shouldn't think too much about these things. I mean, I really, really shouldn't.

But I do.

My wife enjoys watching the new animated series Transformers Prime and some of the other afternoon shows run on the Hub channel. (She likes Starscream. What can I say? And Ratchet too, she reminds me) And so the the rotation of ads played during that time block have become burned upon my consciousness. (Even now a McDonald's jingle is playing through my head. You know the one. And now it's in your head too.)

The one that's stuck in my brain, though, is the one for Froot Loops.

It starts out with Toucan Sam and his nephews Hughie, Louie and Dewey, (or was it Pipeye, Peepeye and Poopeye?) climbing to the top of an Aztec pyramid somewhere in the jungle. They see a large stone chest overflowing with Froot Loops cereal. (What, you were expecting Aztec gold? Get real!) "It's the Greedy Witch Doctor's Fruity Fortune!" Toucan Sam says.

"Woah! Colorriffic!" the kids exclaim and rush to the hoard to scoop up pre-sweetened cereal goodness in their feathery fingers.

Just then, the Witch Doctor appears, (Wearing a headdress, by the way, which looks much like a toucan's beak. Not sure what that means). "Give me back my Froot Loops cereal or I'll use my Magic Sprinkles on you!" he snarls angrily. (He does not mention that Froot Loops are a Good Part of This Balanced Breakfast at this time). With a wave of his hands, multi-colored sprinkles appear in the air taking the shape of scary, scary faces. Ooo.

The Toucans edge away from the scary, scary sprinkles, but one resourceful nephew takes a feather and tickles the Witch Doctor's foot, He loses his balance and topples off the pyramid, giggling all the way down; and as he does so, the sprinkles land on the cereal, making them Magically Delicious. Wait. No, that's a different cereal. Everyone gathers up the sprinkle-garnished loops in bowls and has a good breakfast.

It was about the third or fourth time I saw this ad that I made a weird connection with a book I once came across in college: How to Read Donald Duck.

I stumbled across the book in the library while browsing through it's collection of comics-related material. I paged through it and skimmed over some of the pages, then put it back. It was an earnest and angry diatrabe about how Donald Duck comics were a tool of the Imperialists to disseminate Colonialist Propaganda.

At the time I dismissed the book. My familiarity with Donald Duck came chiefly from the animated shorts I'd seen on TV, which had nothing to do with colonialism, imperialism, or anything remotely capitalist. I had read very few of the Donald Duck comic books, which often dealt with Super-Capitalist Scrooge McDuck travelling to exotic Third World locations to amass even more gold.

Some years later, Disney put out a TV series called Duck Tales, which adapted many of those classic Carl Barks stories, and I realized that the earnest author of How to Read Donald Duck did have a point. I still disagreed with him, but could see his point.

But seeing the Witch Doctor commercial got me thinking. Wasn't the Witch Doctor entitled to protect his treasure against thieves? And isn't Toucan Sam and his ill-defined relations here merely white colonialists seizing the resources of the native population? (I know, Toucan Sam isn't white, he's multi-colored. But he talks with a British accent). And why does he call the Witch Doctor "Greedy"? Is this a rationaliztion that makes it okay to steal the poor guy's breakfast?

I really ought to cut the ad some slack. It's not easy to cram a narrative into a thirty-second spot and tout the virtues of your product at the same time. I know; I've been drawing a promotional comic strip for local business and it's tough coming up with ideas that sell the product and also entertain. Ads for kid's cereal generally fall into two formulistic plots: Character tries to steal someone's breakfast and fails: ( "Silly Rabbit! Trix are for Kids!" ); or character tries to steal someone's breakfast and succeeds: ( "Barney! You ate my Pebbles!" )

In recent years, Froot Loops has been going with an Indiana Jones vibe for it's TV ads; and I now realize, borrowing heavily from Scrooge McDuck. As Carl Barks borrowed from earlier adventure tales when he wrote the classic Scrooge McDuck comics. But somehow, tropes that never bothered me in the context of a duck story seem to annoy my Inner Marxist when they appear in an ad for breakfast food.

And I didn't know I even had an Inner Marxist.