Sunday, July 8, 2018

Considerations of Works Present: Avengers, Infinity War

I’m going to talk about Avengers: Infinity War root and branch. I’m going to talk about other films like it. If you don’t want to know what goes on in the film, don’t read much further.

I will say this at the outset: A:IF is a well made film and the visuals are terrific. So go see it.


There. That’s out of the way.

There’s an interesting trend in the Marvel universe that I very much like—and, in fact, see rarely in comparable films about the fantastic. That is, the stories are not about the fantastic at all. These are not films about superheroes; they are films about human beings that happen to have superpowers.
I think I first started noticing the distinction back in 2002 with Firefly. But I couldn’t have articulated it at that point. That came when I saw Hancock.

Hancock is a film where the main character, John Hancock (Will Smith) is endowed with superpowers and lives pretty much as a bum in Los Angeles. He’s an amnesiac drunk who does heroics in the worst possible way. It was poorly received. I don’t really know why—I thought it was terrific because it had no super villain. The protagonist is his own worst enemy—the story is how he figures out who he is in the absence of having any memory of who he is. Possibly the expectations were a superhero movie. What they got was a human being coping with problems who happened to have superpowers.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I hate what I call high school movies or high school television. By that I mean teenagers (or people who act like teenagers) that have angst about who they are, flip through relationships and the stories devolve into will he/won’t she fall in love? My own experience in high school was that it was a great place to escape. Adulthood was much more fun and way more complicated. Hancock had no high school and there was little romance and the protagonist doesn’t get the girl. The girl is happily married and stays that way.

So: a long path to the Infinity War.

Marvel has been building up tp A:IW for ten years. It has a main cast of maybe forty people? Fifty? If you haven’t been watching the previous films you won’t know who they are. This film is for those of us who have.

That said, how do you film a movie about forty people?

Answer: you don’t.

It reminds me of the kid’s riddle: you don’t get down off an elephant; you get down off a duck.

The film is, instead, a situational biography of the “villain” of the piece, Thanos. The forty people are the supporting cast. We learn who Thanos is. Why he’s doing what he’s doing. How he’s doing it. And how he ultimately succeeds. 

It reminded me of Spielberg’s Lincoln. Lincoln encapsulates all of the relevant biography of Abraham Lincoln in his struggle to pull together the 13th Amendment after the war is over. The action circles around that work but must reflect who Lincoln was and who the presidency and the war has made him.

Similarly, A:IF is all about the struggle of the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Dr. Strange, Spiderman and everybody else to keep Thanos from his goal: to halve the population of the universe.

(One pet peeve: I hate people talking about “the universe” frivolously. As if even someone with God Like Power could have much effect on a thing 13.7 billion years old and 91 billion light years across—and that size is only the observable universe. Make it “the galaxy” or even better “the local spiral arm.”)

Why? Because he has seen his own world and others destroyed by an ever increasing populace. He’s buying time. Not much time, either. We went from 3 billion people to 7.4 in 48 years. So, at best, he’s given the “universe” fifty years. But, hey. At least, he’s trying.

He sacrifices his daughter, his kingdom and everything he has to get there and nearly fails but ultimately succeeds and half the population disappears into smoke. He ends up resting peacefully by the side of a lake.

There’s a lot to unpack in A:IF. For example, we learn that heroes make lousy soldiers. Twice, the heroes almost win but fail due to their own inability to think strategically. The first time, they’re trying to pull the gauntlet off Thanos’ hand while he’s asleep. (Why Iron Man or Dr. Strange just cut the arm off is an interesting question.) But the emotionally overburdened Peter Quill beats on Thanos because of he murdered his love and wakes him up.

The second time is when Thor goes for the dramatic strike of his axe to Thanos’ chest. Even Thanos realizes this was a mistake: “You should have gone for the head.”

It’s Hancock all over again: there are consequences to actions and heroes don’t often consider them well. Super people are those endowed with the powers but aren't the best suited for the job.

We do learn a bit about the supporting cast—there’s a substory involving Banner and the Hulk,who is beaten to a bloody pulp by Thanos just for fun and then won’t come out regardless how much Banner pleads with him. Poor Peter Parker clearly doesn’t want to die—that’s a pretty sad scene. We might get a save from Captain Marvel but who knows how that’s going to come out?

Which brings us to the last bit about A:IF: what’s next?

I don’t mean just what’s going on in the next movie. I mean that Marvel may have done their job too well. This is good movie. It has profound implications for the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And they’ve announced three movies a year.

They’re clearly going to bring back the dead. What’s Guardians of the Galaxy without Gamora? No smoke for her: she was outright killed. Same for Loki. Same for Vision. Gamora was dumped off a thousand foot cliff. Loki was strangled. Vision had his brain plucked out.

And that’s just the onscreen killings. What about all those people smokified?

The problem is that if the Marvel brings them back cheaply it breaks the MCU. They potentially are going to use time travel but that is the cheapest of cheap solutions and I’m not sure if I’d watch any more after that.

My wife came up with a really good idea. One of the infinity stones is the “soul gem.” She thinks the smoked were pulled into the soul gem. We ran with this and came up with the idea that inside the soul gem is a whole world where the people in the gem saw the other people turn to smoke. They think their world is real. The story then when people both inside and outside of the gem begin to understand where everybody is and begin to push against the boundary. That would be fun.

That leaves the problem of the truly dead—Gamora, Loki and the Vision—as an exercise for the intelligent reader.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

On Koko

On June 19th Koko the gorilla died.

I have to say, this had more impact on me than the deaths of other well known people. In the last few years I’ve mourned many people I respected and whose lives enriched mine. Some deaths were expected from age. Some were a surprise—those are somehow harder. But the two that have the most effect on me were Alex, Irene Pepperberg’s long time associate, and now Koko.

We raise turtles and have done so for over twenty years. Some have become part of the family in the sense that they will never be sold regardless of whether or not we can breed and sell their offspring. It has become clear over the years that these animals can recognize individual people. They come for food for some and not others.

Koko and Alex and our turtles are wild animals—they have not been condition over thousands of generations to love us like cats and dogs. Whoever they are came from evolutionary conditions in which we did not participate.

Several years ago we had a sulcata named Ibn. We grew him as a hatchling until he was better than fifty pounds. During the summer he had the run of the back yard. Often, he would come over and nudge my ankle for a treat or a scratch. These are what I would expect from any associative learning.

But other times I would sit in the back yard and Ibn would leave his usual spot where he grazed and came over nearby and recommence grazing next to me. This happened enough times that I couldn’t just attribute it to checking me out for food or a good scratch—he didn’t indicate that to me with a nudge. But he came to be near me just the same.

These are animals that diverged from our line over two hundred million years ago. There is little common ground between us. But between me and Ibn was something. There was something about being near me he liked. It wasn’t a friendship. It wasn’t anything remotely like anything a human might call a “relationship” except in the broadest terms. But it was something.

This is what made Irene and Alex so interesting. It was clear Alex and Doctor Pepperberg had a real relationship—more than just call and response or task and reward. Yet, Alex’s lineage was just as far from human as Ibn’s. Alex had a wonderful mind and spirit but whatever powered was not the same as what powered ours. All of the brain enhancements that made us human happened since that divergence. If Alex had feelings for Pepperberg—and all signs point to yes on that one—he felt them and expressed them using machinery we did not have.

I have been following Koko since the late seventies. What she and Francine Patterson did together in terms of communication was nothing short of remarkable. But that is not what is profound here is not the work they did together but the deep and lasting relationship they had.

It is easy for a human being to love another human being. While we’re all very different, from any perspective outside of our own species, we’re all pretty much the same. We work hard at that and it’s not a bad thing. When we try to see other points of view we draw ourselves closer. I’m not saying we’re not all individuals—we truly are—but perhaps no more individualized than many other individuals within a species. It’s an intraspecies thing.

Gorillas aren’t that different from us. They have a big primate brain. The brain is shaped a lot like ours. We didn’t diverge from them more than ten million years ago—more than twenty times that for Alex or Ibn. They’re practically cousins in an evolutionary sense.

They are, in fact, close enough that when we bridge that gap we can be fairly certain that what we recognize on the other side is probably not our imaginations.

I have no doubt that Francine Patterson loved Koko. It’s obvious in her filmed interactions with her. With the way she rewrote her life around Koko. I don’t think Patterson had any illusions about Koko. I don’t think she thought of Koko as another human being the way we so often foist our own species image on other animals. Right now she is no doubt heartbroken and grieving.

I have no doubt Koko cared for Patterson. There is something in the films—some difference between how Koko interacts with her and how Koko interacts with anyone else—that suggests that to me.

Where humans are really at their best is when we try to honestly reach across that species barrier. We do this all the time and if there is anything divine or magnificent about human beings, this is one place where it appears.

It’s not surprising when we love them. It’s a gift when they love us back.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Consideration of Works Present: 1491

I just finished 1491 by Charles C. Mann.

I am very impressed.

There’s a lot to unpack in the book but fundamentally, it lays bare an assumption that I never realized I was making. One that I think we are taught continually in American culture.

I think it’s best phrased the following way as a sort of logic proposition.

  1. We know that in the “Old World” that humans put their mark everywhere they touched. It shows everywhere. In cities. In fields. In old monuments.
  2. We know that that humans are intrinsically the same. That is, all humans share the same capabilities of cognition, dexterity, etc. We express it different ways but one of the fundamental traits of being human is our ability to shape the environment to ourselves.
  3. Why should we ever consider “New World” humans any differently?

Once this proposition is exposed—and the obvious answer is that “New World” humans are not different—we have to look at the landscape differently. I.e., the “wilderness” we think of was not a wilderness at all. It was sculpted every bit as much as the “Old World”—differently, of course. Humans in the Americas had a different tool set than those in Africa, Europe and Asia and thus we can expect different outcomes. But that’s a difference in quality not quantity.

(For purposes of this discussion I’m going to follow Mann’s utilization of the word “Indian” to describe pre-Columbian natives of the America’s. He has a long chapter where he explains why he chose that word. Since he used it, and I’m talking about his work, I’m going to use it here.)

The reason that Europeans came up with the idea that the land they saw was “natural” was that by the time they explored it, the land was empty. Most of the native population died of introduced diseases long before they saw a European. The empty land was full of game and plentiful fruits and nuts—a natural paradise. Except it wasn’t natural at all. Europeans reaped the harvest without ever knowing how cultivated it was.

There’s a certain foreshortening of history that I think Americans are susceptible to. We have incredibly short attention spans and cling to myths and beliefs against all evidence. One of the problems with the American visualization of native populations is how it’s is based on a very narrow window of time. American imagery comes from the Time of the West—the forty years or so after the Civil War and before 1900. The remainder think about Thanksgiving but when they do, often they conflate the two, dressing the Indians in garb from two hundred years later and a thousand miles away.

The history between 1492 and the present—better than five hundred years—is, of course, much broader than that. The Indians didn’t all die at once—there were long stretches of time where there was significant comingling of the cultures. But vast numbers did die.

There’s one story that rung out for me: the story of Tisquantum who has become known as Squanto in the Pilgrim story. Tisquantuam was kidnapped to Spain about 1614 and spent several years attempting to return. When he left his village and the other villages in the area around Plymouth were vibrant and numerous. The coastal area was heavily populated all the way up into Main.

When he returned, it was desolate. His home village was gone. Where there had been tens of thousands there were not tens. The Pilgrims had squatted in the ruins of his old village. Tisquantum ended up living with them. Did he live there because this was the only thing that remained of his old life? Because after his time away, and this terrible loss, he ended up having more in common with those that lived in the ruins than the remainder of other tribes?

Mann tells these sorts of stories all through the Americas from Canada down to the tip of South America. Ecological triumphs such as the mispas—areas of combined cultivation of maize, squash and legumes where the heavy feeders (maize) pulled nitrogen from the soil that had been fixed from the atmosphere by the legumes. Some areas had been continuously cultivated for hundreds of years.

There were also ecological failures. The Mound Builders of Cahokia took to the introduction of maize with a vengeance and nearly destroyed the clay soil. There are evidences of washouts when the Mississippi flooded the area. Then, those washouts disappeared. The population figured out what they had done wrong.

There are stories of the rise of cultures through wonderful vision and the fall through nothing more than mean spiritedness in interesting parallels to similar patterns in the Old World.

Man introduces a number of controversial points and brackets them with the counter arguments and why he made his decisions. You can argue with these points and you’ll be in good company—these arguments are still going on as more and more evidence is being accumulated.

Even so, it changed my perspective and I welcome that.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Consideration of Works Past: The Godwhale

First a heads up on happy information.

Recall earlier this year my story, The Sweet Warm Earth, was published in F&SF. It was picked up by The Best American Mystery Stories.

Well, it’s out. Here it is.

Okay, now that shameless self promotion is out of the way, let’s talk about The Godwhale.

TG was published in 1974 by T. J. Bass. Bass is one of those extremely interesting writers of which there’s not a lot of material to read. There were a number of these in the sixties and seventies. Bass’ isfdb page has two novels, a novella or two and perhaps four short stories. I read TG back when it was first published and read its prequel, Half PastHuman. I haven’t read HPH since so I can’t comment on it. Not that it matters. TG stands on its own.

TG begins a few hundred years in the future where there is a population issue but it is largely managed. The book follows the life of Larry Dever, a human that gets caught in an accident where the lower half of his body from the navel on down is amputated. He is put into suspension which introduces him to some intervening cultural periods, setting the stage to where he ultimately ends up. As he stays in suspension his genes become more and more valuable, being more ancient and primitive. In effect, he becomes a “wild type” human—a rich genetic source for future domestic crops (like humans) that have lost variability over time.

Dever ends up several thousand years in the future where there is nothing but the Hive, a continent spanning city-state containing a trillion human beings who term themselves Nebishes. Nebishes have been selected for this existence. They are small. Their calorie requirements are low. They have four toes. The Nebish city state is completely consumed with its own survival without regard to the cost to the rest of the world. Anyone who does not contribute or fails at his role may forfeit their right to active life and end up in suspension or demoted.

Bass has an interesting style. Reading him almost feels as if you’re reading dispassionate journalism. This happens. That happens. This person feels this. Truly horrible events are described without heat. It is the events that he relates that have a tinge of horror but the author doesn’t let the language be the vehicle. Not to say his prose is not compelling. It is.

There’s a lovely scene where Dever is resuscitated into the Nebish world in which, as a cripple, he cannot belong. But their ethics are strong where other humans are concerned. He cannot belong but they cannot kill him. Instead, they give him a painless poison in place of food. A citizen follows him around telling him how he has ruined her day. How miserable she is seeing him and he should just take the poison and die. Later, she is traumatized when Dever assaults her, takes her food and escapes.

The Godwhale of the title does not show up for some time. This is the plankton rake the Rorqual Maru. She is a whale that has been repurposed into a floating harvest factory. The Hive has left the entire outside world barren so she has no plankton to harvest. She sends her compatriot, a small unit named Iron Trilobite, to seek people for her to serve again. Instead, Trilobite becomes incorporated into the Hive. Where he eventually meets Larry Dever.

There are a few primitive people (the Benthics) that are stealing the sterile fruits of the Hive gardens. They survive by living in the sea.

Bass brings Dever, the Benthics, Iron Trilobite and the Rorqual Maru together deftly and they mysteriously bring about a reseeding of the oceans. Which, of course, puts them in conflict with the Hive for the same resources. This conflict occupies most of the book.

Bass was very interested in the nature of utilitarianism and over-population. One recurring theme in both of his books is the devaluation of human beings. While Bass never really states this issue in economic terms, in effect he proposes that as the number of humans increases to the point of resource contention, the individual value of human beings goes down.

While he never uses these terms, the Hive model is essentially a zero sum game system and the Benthics a non-zero sum game system. But this is not political ideology—the Hive is bound by its eternal struggle to match needs and resources. Once it’s made that decision, the zero sum game is the only game in town. The Benthics have scarcity but it’s driven by enabling barriers to the resources, not the limits of the resources themselves. Once the ocean is reseeded, the two methodologies square off and the Hive is the worse for it.

I want to be clear here. TG is not an ideological book. It’s a book with a strong plot and compelling characters that acts out aspects of ideologies because of logical necessity, not because of the invisible hand of the author. It really is an example of SF at its best: good characterization, an interesting world and circumstances that force the characters, and the reader, to grapple with complex ideas.

That said, there are some significant differences between the point of view of 1974 and the point of view of 2017. This is a good book but it is a book that is over forty years old. Two generations make a difference. Some might be feel a little squeamish on women’s roles in the book. Women are not trivialized as when presented under the auspices of Evil Heinlein. (As opposed to Good Heinlein.)

Like Cordwainer Smith, The Godwhale and other T. J. Bass work occupy their own little niche. I just wish there was more of it.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

State of the Farm, Fall 2017

(Picture from here.)
You recall last year when we had the worst drought I’d ever seen since I moved out here. Parts of our garden just twisted themselves out of the ground and we lost a couple of trees. Sections of grape arbors died and never came back. The birds, in their desperation, stripped one whole arbor of every grape that was there. The hornets and yellow jackets fought each other over left over orange rinds.

Everybody prayed for rain.

You recall that old adage, be careful what you wish for?

Well, it’s been a wet 2017. I mean, we’re not in hurricane class, but we got all the rain we needed. It was a cold rain, too. None of the melons set at the right time. The grapes came to fruition but they never got enough light or heat to really sugar up.


It was a good year for some things and a bad year for others. This was the best year we’ve ever had for apples. However, that’s not a high bar. Some folks would say that the measure was more a paint strip on the road than a bar. We got a bout thirty of the ugliest Granny Smith apples you’ve ever seen. I mean, these made those ugly dried face looking cabbage patch kids look positively handsome.

They made good apple tarts, though.

Back to the grapes.

I held off harvesting as long as I could, hoping against hope, they’d sugar up. We harvested the Concords and got an adequate harvest—maybe 15 pounds or so. Not much for that vine. They had a Missouri interesting flavor. (“My. What an… interesting looking baby.”) Not bad but  not too sweet, either.

Over the years I’ve moved to freezing the grapes before I press them. This has the interesting effect of making more of the juice available. But, since it ruptures the cells, other things come out in higher concentration. It gives a little something extra to the flavor. Sometimes it works as a wine. Sometimes it doesn’t.

So I froze the Concords and started up primary fermentation. I’ll get a hint when I rack the batch.
To make room for the Concords, I had to pull up some frozen peaches from earlier this year. (We had a good peach harvest.) That’s just finishing up primary so I don’t know how it came out.

We have two primary grape producing vines: Concord and Marechal Foch.

The M/F was the arbor that got nailed by the birds last year. Like the Concords, I held off as long as I can. Until I saw the birds paying too much attention to one corner. Okay. I attacked it last weekend. We got about 30 pounds of grapes.

It was interesting. The birds didn’t bother me but yellow jackets know no fear. I’d be working on a section when two wasps would decide that they wanted that bunch. No problem. I’d go working on another section. It reminded of a Leonard Wibberley quote from (I think) The Mouse that Roared.  It went something like this: “The pen is mightier than the sword but the sword is mightier than the pen at any given moment.”

I coexisted with the yellow jackets as the total amount of grapes gradually decreased. They flew near me once or twice but more as a sheathed threat than an active menace. Until the last bunches at the very top of the arbor.

I started pulling at the bunch and got seriously buzzed. This time one of them bounced off my head.

I figured I could do without that last bunch of grapes.

As I said, we got a good peach harvest earlier in the summer. Ditto the pie cherries. I hoped to get a few sweet cherries but, as always, the birds got there first. We did get a few plums.

The apples are always the last fruits of the season so we’re talking about what to do next year. We planted several new bushes and small trees: blue berries, sea berries, some paw paws. The nectarine has never produced well. The fruit is prolific but it splits and tears up the tree. It’s a dwarf. We got a volunteer nectarine across the yard. (Thank you, squirrels.) Its fruit didn’t split but the chipmunks got to them first. So I think it might be the base graft upon which the fruiting tree rests. Likely we’re going to tear it out and put something else in.

Ditto the prune plum and the pluot. Both appear to be reservoirs of black knot. We’ve been tip toeing around the problem for years because the prune tree has been with us for years. But no longer.

Likely, we’ll save the wood. We’ve been doing that this year. We had to cut down a birch and lopped the limbs off a cedar. Instead of just burning the wood, we coated them so they wouldn’t crack while they dried. When they’re dry enough, I’m going to pull out the lathe and see what I can make.

Musn’t waste things.