Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Civil War review, with Captain America context and mild spoilers

After the hot mess of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War was a heartening return to form for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with wonderful action, great character work, and some really moving moments — one that actually had me crying a little. It’s almost on a level with The Avengers and CA: The Winter Soldier, in my opinion; I know some people say it’s better. The only thing that lessens it slightly for me is the narrowed scope of the “civil war” itself, compared to the comics.

It has really great action scenes. I definitely recommend seeing it on the big screen if possible to enjoy it fully, but I believe it will still be good when it hits smaller screens. Battles are coherent: While there’s a whole lot going on, it’s also not hard to keep track of what IS going on. Fights are crisp and punchy, unlike the boring ones in Ultron that just dragged on and on. Individual moves are often clever, and I laughed in delight at some of the combinations, as well as laughing at the banter.
Oh yes, there’s a lot of humor in CW, despite the tense and sometimes world-weary tone of the movie. Some of it is from funny lines from quipsters, but just as much is situational humor rising from characters and their conflicts.

Character interplay and development is my favorite part of the movie, even better than the action! Continuing characters keep evolving in interesting and satisfying ways, and the new characters introduced are by turns entertaining and compelling.

Captain America is great as always, both here and in the comics. What really makes me love Cap and Chris Evans’ portrayal of him is the demonstration that a good person with ideals doesn’t have to be simple or boring.  The opposite of a jingoist, he considers and takes moral stands. Cap’s “old-fashioned values” have to do with truth and fairness, and that puts him in conflict with today’s dominant realpolitik worldviews, but he makes people think about who they want to be and how they want the world to be, and that’s great.

For more background on Captain America, I recommend this TV special that I happened to catch on the Saturday before CW opened. It had apparently aired this winter, before the second season of Agent Carter. Anyway, I was really pleased with how well it was put together.
http://abc.go.com/movies-and-specials/marvels-captain-america-75-heroic-years

It was pretty sweet; in the beginning, they talked about how involved Jack Kirby was in the comic books, doing a lot of the writing as well as the art, before he served in WWII; near the end, they talked about how much he would have liked the movies. One guy (not Stan Lee) got teary-eyed, and the camera just stayed on him, waiting silently until he collected himself and was able to continue talking.

They mentioned how gutsy and controversial it was to launch the series with Cap punching Hitler before America even got into WWII. They also discussed how Cap ended up fighting conspiracy at the highest levels of government during Watergate, and continued with his legacy after that.

Here’s a fairly comprehensive history of the character:
https://medium.com/@BBW_BFF/loyal-to-the-dream-the-history-of-captain-america-b9931a2a6dab#.vos4a46hc

Given Cap’s origins, I’m glad they let the comic lapse soon after WWII instead of converting him into a Red Scare Commie-basher. Here's a great essay by John Seavey from several years ago arguing why Steve Rogers (Cap) may have been raised in a Communist, or at least Socialist, household in the 1930s (it meant something a bit different back then):
http://mightygodking.com/2010/04/30/things-id-like-to-write-someday-247654932/
"He might not have been a card-carrying Communist himself, but his parents almost certainly were. Because being a Communist had a different meaning during the Great Depression than it did twenty years onwards, in a Cold War America. During the 1930s, when unemployment was high and a privileged few were almost completely insulated from the Depression’s effects, lots of people joined the Communists because they believed in things like unionization, racial equality, and fighting back against the rise of totalitarian dictatorships in Europe."

And here’s a great post-Avengers fanfic about how Steve’s straight talk and eagerness to act on his beliefs stresses out a SHIELD publicist. She’d expected to have to handle a racist, sexist grandpa type, but hot, but instead she got a crusader:
http://idiopath-fic-smile.tumblr.com/post/117149098318/steve-rogers-pr-disaster-gen-4k

From here on out, there will be SPOILERS.

Monday, January 11, 2016

My Continuing Cross-Time Crush on "Hamilton"

I can't claim any brilliantly original insights about "Hamilton," since so many good writers have already shared their raves for this historic Broadway sensation. But since today would have been the 259th birthday of the real man, Alexander Hamilton, I'm assembling some of my thoughts and discoveries here in tribute. 

Like many people, I'd long been vaguely aware of Alexander Hamilton as one of America's Founding Fathers, who wasn't ever president but who was memorialized on the $10 bill. That awareness sharpened slightly in 1993 with the award-winning Got Milk? commercial portraying the history fanatic who couldn't make the name of Hamilton's killer, Aaron Burr, intelligible (Aawoh Buuww! AAWOH BUWWH!) for a radio quiz show.

I became a fan of Alexander Hamilton this June, when I learned more about him as the controversy erupted over Treasury plans to minimize him on the $10 bill to make room for a woman on the currency, instead of booting Jackson from the $20 bill as originally urged by the #womenon20s campaign.

Here's a wonderfully entertaining rant about this: "To take Hamilton off the currency while leaving Jackson is to actively make America a worse place. It is picking your awful DMV photo as your headshot."

I read about how Hamilton overcame his humble origin to become a Revolutionary leader (and early abolitionist) and one of the foremost thinkers of the Republic. He wrote over half of the Federalist Papers that convinced states to ratify the Constitution, and founded the country's financial system (along with the Coast Guard and the New York Post, etc.). Not that I'm at all happy with what banks and financial institutions have been doing and getting away with for the last 10 or 20 years or more; however, Hamilton's ideas not only brought stability to chaos, but in so doing fostered investment, innovation, and growth, and brought the Union closer together.   

Also this spring, summer, and fall, I was intrigued by what I heard and read about the hit "Hamilton" musical and its creator. Then in September, the original cast recording was released, and I fell in love. 

Before I get to that, let me set the stage. Here's creator Lin-Manuel Miranda performing what later evolved into the musical's opening number, back in 2009 when Hamilton was just a concept album he was working on, at the White House. I should probably mention that there's some explicit language. And lots and lots of clever language.

And now here's the original cast recording, all 46 songs (the embedded YouTube sends a little ad revenue to the creators). After I listened through once, I bought the CDs and the digital download.



I should mention that there's some explicit language. And lots and lots of brilliant language and interwoven rhyming and stirring music.

I really love the lyrics in Hamilton, and also how the music helps drive the stories. Together the songs are by turns energizing, funny, beautiful, heartbreaking and inspiring. 

(I adored reading the reactions of writer Sunil Patel (@ghostwritingcow), who livetweeted his reactions as he listened to #Hamiltunes for the first time. Here's the Storify. Beware, his language is even more explicit than the musical itself! This one sentence of his may sum up "Hamilton" the best: "The personal is political, the political is personal, huge massive undertakings are undertaken by individual people.")

It's also fascinating how certain phrases and themes transform their meanings when used at different times by different people. For instance, Alexander's wife, Eliza, sings "Helpless" when they meet to show how she's falling in love with him, and later sings "Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now" in an effort to get him to slow down and appreciate their life together instead of always driving on toward the next thing; later, he sings the "Look around" lines back to her to explain that he has a duty to his country and he has to serve when called upon, so she sings the word "Helpless" again, meaning she can't change his mind.

Here's a chart of "Lyrical Motifs and Reoccurences in #Hamiltunes" by @beatricks on Twitter.
To see the fantastically clever lyrics, with many annotations and explanations, visit the Genius site

Obviously, I also love the stories that "Hamilton" tells. Hamilton's greatest strength — his driving passion to create a legacy — is also his greatest flaw, ultimately leading to his self-destruction; it's classic tragedy. He's also arrogant about his "top-notch brain," which alienates potential allies, and he's rashly impulsive. He's neither an angel nor a saint, but he's absolutely a hero. Miranda makes me care so much about him!

(Warning: Listening to the second half while at work or driving may be a bad idea. After hearing the album quite a few times, I'm crying MORE when I listen rather than getting inured to what happens.)

Burr's character and evolution are also fascinating, as are Eliza's, and many of the other characters have some great moments. This is history (a dramatization, but based reasonably closely on Ron Chernow's Hamilton biography and other sources) brought to vivid life with passion and intrigue rather than just being dusty dates and descriptions.

Here's a long but very interesting text interview with Miranda. There's a lot about his creative process and how he came to identify with and write about Alexander Hamilton. He came to understand that the stories of the founding of the United States were still very relevant today and have bearing on what decisions are being made now:
"The fights that I wrote between me [Hamilton] and Jefferson, you could put them in the mouths of candidates on MSNBC. They’re about foreign relations; they’re about states’ rights versus national rights; they’re about debt. These are all conversations we’re still having, and I think it’s a comfort to know that they’re just a part of the more perfect union we’re always working towards, or try to work towards, and that we’re always working on them."
An aspect of Miranda's brilliance is in bringing these people and topics into the current vernacular so that what is often dismissed as dead dry history focused on landed white males becomes not only relevant to today, but important in a way that could hardly be dreamed of before. Miranda combines hip-hop, pop, ballads and other musical forms throughout the show/album in a way that seems smooth and effortless and natural, although he worked on it for six years. His racially diverse casting makes it easier for all modern Americans to envision themselves as George Washington and other people who seemed so remote before. 

So, the "Hamilton" album came out in September. Since then, I've listened to at least part of it nearly every day. I have never been obsessed with any musical, or any creative work I can think of, the way I am with this. I still discover new nuances every time. 

I can't say I have a favorite song, because that depends on my mood and what I've listened to most recently. The song I've listened to most is the opening number ("Alexander Hamilton") because it's so infectiously energetic, and because I decided to memorize it and perform it with my twin sister for our other relatives over the holidays, but other songs have deeper emotional impacts on me.

Because of this musical, I'm reading Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton. (I've read the first three chapters and the last three, and now I'm working on the middle 600 pages or so.) Moreover, my twin sister and I have a milestone birthday coming up soon, and we've decided to celebrate by going to New York City to see the show!
Alexander: Where are you taking me? 
Angelica: I'm about to change your life!
Alexander: Then by all means, lead the way.
If you're reading this and haven't listened to "Hamilton," I can't promise that it will change your life, but I'm here to testify that it changed mine. It gave me an appreciation of hip-hop and rap and made me feel more connected with various communities, and it made me want to write more, do more, and be more. "Hamilton" makes me want to be a better person.

One last note: I am charmed by the Hamilton crew's re-creation of the Got Milk? ad, this time starring Odom as the hapless historian, that they released this summer in preparation for their move to the Richard Rodgers Theatre (Broadway) from the Public (off-Broadway). It's a warm tribute that shows their love of history and meta-history as well as a healthy sense of humor.

(Search for the hashtag #HBH2016 to see birthday tributes to Alexander Hamilton by the U.S. Coast Guard, the AHA society, and more.)

(Edited to Add: Or maybe this essay is in honor of his 261st birthday, depending on which sources are right.)

Update 1/19/2016: Here's a fascinating technical analysis of the music and how it evolved, with "Hamilton" musical director Alex Lacamoire.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Force Awakens: Fanservice Galore, Some Cool Stuff, and Some Bothersome Bits (SPOILERS)

People clapped when the Lucasfilm logo signaled that the trailers were over and Star Wars: The Force Awakens had begun. People (including me) cheered when the yellow Star Wars logo popped up against the starfield, concurrent with John Williams' triumphal theme.

At the end of the movie, there were just a few scattered claps (not including any from me).

There was a lot that I loved about this movie, and nothing I hated. But I did have some problems with it.

Starting with the positive, everything felt real and solid. I expected nothing less than a seamless blend of real special effects and CGI, and I got it. Also, BB-8 was indeed cute.

I loved the multiracial cast. I loved that women had strong, active roles.

I loved the fanservice, up to a point. There were many callbacks to the first six movies, from the opening crawl to other things that I'll start mentioning after the spoiler warning. 

SPOILER WARNING!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Mind Meld: What Makes the Perfect Short Story?

I recently participated in another Mind Meld at the SFSignal website with about 20 other writers and editors. This was the question posed by superfan Paul Weimer, which each of us answered in our own way:

Novels have to do many things, novellas a few things. But a short story is a pure, distilled idea, crystallized down to the core, drilling down through a reader’s shields and evoking a reaction, branding a reader’s memory forever. With this in mind, we asked our contributors:
Q: What do you consider the perfect SF/F short story, or the elements of one?

Follow the link at http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2015/12/mind-meld-makes-perfect-short-story/ and scroll down to see my reply along with those of many others.

(This item was really published here on Dec. 19 but scheduled as if on Dec. 16, the day the Mind Meld went up at SFSignal, to keep my essays chronologically tidy in my blog's timeline.)

Friday, September 18, 2015

FOL at the CFLC Spelling Bee, 2015

The Cape Fear Literacy Council holds a spelling bee for adults every year as a fundraiser. The 28th Annual Spelling Bee for Literacy was held last night, and the Friends of the New Hanover County Public Library made it to the fifth round of six. Congratulations to the Wilmington Cape Fear Rotary Club for winning and to the Rotary Club of Wilmington for placing second!

I've been competing on the Friends of the Library team (Fiends of the Library) for several years; I've been a member of the board for several years and a volunteer before that. Sadly, while the FOL team has won the bee nine times in the past, none of those victories has come in this decade, although we've been in the finals once or twice. But I feel no shame.

The word that beat us was kwashiorkor, a form of protein-deficit malnutrition. The other fifth-round words were hydroxyapatit, gymkhana, ephippium, and caitiff. Since the format for this round (and the first four) had two teams spelling at once (each team reached a consensus together and then wrote the word on a transparent sheet for projection), these five words ended up eliminating six other teams.

In the sixth and final round, they read out 10 words, and the two remaining teams wrote them all down and handed in the list. WCFRC had seven words correct -- very impressive -- and RCW had five. Playing in the audience at this point, I got four right.

I'm working on creating a sound file of the 10 words in the last round, with definitions and sentences, and will update this post with it when that's complete, so anyone who's interested will be able to play along.

Thanks to The Terraces on Sir Tyler for hosting the bee this year and all the great sponsors listed here, as well as the 18 other area organizations that competed.

Props to my teammates, Bruce Shuman, Carla Sarratt, and Jaz Theodore for upholding the honor of FOL! Jaz especially deserves thanks for stepping in at the last moment. I hope we all get to try again next year!

UPDATE (Sept. 21, 2015): I have created the sound file of the 10 words from the final round of the bee.



In case the embedded player doesn't work, you can find it at this link.

Have fun! If you play along, please let me know how you do!

Friday, July 31, 2015

My 2015 Hugo Awards Ballot

Tonight (July 31) at midnight PDT is the deadline for voting in the Hugo Awards, which celebrate science fiction and fantasy. I'm short on time today, so I'm mostly keeping this post to a list of my votes. If you're curious why I voted "No Award" so many times, The Guardian posted a pretty good summary of the issues today, and File 770 has a fairly comprehensive log of the ongoing debate between what I'll call the reactionaries and the futurists. I'll just say I appreciate multiple viewpoints and fiction that reflects some thoughtfulness about issues, as opposed to straight action-adventures steeped in one dominant mindset. Also, I strongly favor voting one's conscience as opposed to slate voting designed to crowd out independent thinking.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Mind Meld: Writing in Another Author's Universe

For anyone who missed it, I participated in a Mind Meld at SFSignal with a number of other writers and editors, which was published on May 27. Here it is:
http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2015/05/mind-meld-writing-another-authors-universe/

The question posed:
"Recently, Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter announced that they were writing a story set in the Jupiter-diving “Medusa” world of the late Arthur C Clarke. Collections such as Songs of the Dying Earth feature writers trying their hand in Vance’s many universes.
With that in mind…
What fallow universe do you think deserves additional exploration, and who would you ask to write in that world?"
Follow the link and scroll down to see my reply.

(This item was published belatedly but scheduled as if on May 28, a day after the Mind Meld was posted, to keep it tidy in the blog timeline.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Serendipitous moments: Libraries, Renoir, and Vreeland's Luncheon of the Boating Party

Earlier this year, I was at the library looking for an audiobook to entertain myself during a long drive. To my disappointment, I had already listened to all the available P.G. Wodehouse works. I started skimming backward through the shelves, and my eyes fell upon "The Luncheon of the Boating Party" by Susan Vreeland.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir has long been one of my favorite painters (Dance at Bougival, Young Girls at the Piano, etc.), and Luncheon of the Boating Party (Le déjeuner des canotiers) is possibly his best, combining people, still-life elements, and a shimmering river landscape in one convivial scene. I borrowed a print of it from my father a few years ago, and it has hung in my bedroom ever since. So I checked out the 14-CD set, despite knowing nothing of the author.

That's one of the things I really enjoy about libraries: serendipitous finds! I love looking at the new arrivals, and I love wandering the stacks, discovering stories that have been waiting for me all along. And because they're free to users, I can try anything, however random and far that offering may be from my usual reading habits.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Podcastle Best of 2014 nominations

I posted last week about Pseudopod's nominations; this week, I'm sharing what I wrote on the Escape Artists forum about my nominations for Pseudopod's sister podcast, the fantasy-oriented Podcastle. It was another really good year for the podcast, one of my favorites, so I have quite a few honorable mentions too. I'm linking to the podcast pages, but they don't autoplay. Some were published elsewhere first and so those pages have links to their original text versions.

... [My] top pick for the year:
305: Heartless by Peadar Ó Guilín
This had a fascinating basis for the system of magic, with a well explored sociology; a strong female protagonist with the courage of her convictions, fighting to save her sister; and choices with real consequences. And the ending blew me away.

My second pick is a story that I didn't entirely understand, nor did I agree with all the protagonist's choices, but it was really powerful. 
302: Feed Me the Bones of Our Saints by Alex Dally MacFarlane
It's still in my head, like it is for [another forum member].

But Podcastle is not always heartwrenching and heavy, thank goodness! A lot of the episodes are just fun. Partly because of Alasdair's delicious delivery, partly because of the Wodehousesque worldbuilding, partly because of the charmingly not-strong protagonist, my third pick is the one story I went back and re-listened to later in the year when I needed cheering up:
322: Saving Bacon by Ann Leckie

Honorable Mentions:
328: The Old Woman With No Teeth by Patricia Russo -- great fun; I loved how the old woman kept interrupting the storyteller to make him revise the narrative.
324: Without Faith, Without Law, Without Joy by Saladin Ahmed -- wonderful style and a really fresh perspective on an old tale.
320: Baba Makosh by M.K. Hobson -- Russian mythic figures during the Russian revolution, neat!
316, Giant Episode: The Meaning of Love by Daniel Abraham -- I loved the worldbuilding and the dialogue about the meaning of love.
315: Stranger vs. the Malevolent Malignancy by Jim C. Hines -- fantastic fun, fighting despair, and turning weakness into strength.
307: Out of the Deep Have I Howled Unto Thee by Scott M. Roberts -- the Easter werewolf!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Pseudopod Best of 2014 nominations

One of the free podcasts that I regularly listen to, Pseudopod, provides narrations of horror short stories, plus excellent, insightful intros and outros. The site's discussion forum recently called for nominations for its Best of 2014 episodes. After submitting my thoughts to the forum, I'm sharing them here, too.

Top Three:
Pseudopod 400: The Screwfly Solution by James Tiptree Jr. read by Matt Franklin, Tina Connolly, Anna Schwind, Matt Weller, Rish Outfield, Eric Luke, George Hrab & Jarus Durnett 
        (sadly feels as though it were just as plausible and terrible now, if not more so, than it probably did when originally published)
***Pseudopod 399: The Wriggling Death by Harold Gross read by Veronica Giguere
        (disgusting, disturbing, fascinating worldbuilding, and a twisted sisterly relationship -- highly memorable)
Pseudopod 418: Shadow Transit by Ferrett Steinmetz read by Marie Brennan
        (that poor mom, struggling with her reluctance and guilt as her daughter seems happy training to fight eerie doom)

Honorable Mentions:
Pseudopod 393: West Gate by Mitchell Edgeworth read by Ron Jon
        (intense snapshot of panic in flight from an unknown menace)
Pseudopod 394: Summer Girls by Caspian Gray read by Robert A.K. Gonyo
        (mixture of uncanny yet taken-for-granted floater-ghost with real-life creepiness of an entitled-feeling guy)

As for best narrators, I'm afraid I rarely think to take note of the narrator when the reading is great but the story is only good, although that does uplift the experience and makes the story itself give a better impression. All of the above readers are great, but there are many other award-worthy readers, so I guess I won't nominate in this category.

I can't think of any stories this year that were less than good! Horror isn't my usual thing, and I only came to this podcast because of listening to the siblings, Escape Pod and Podcastle; however, Pseudopod selections are always interesting and often very evocative, and the characters and their reactions to impossible, horrific situations seem very real. I value the fresh perspectives I get from these "true" stories, even if they aren't comfortable listening!

*** The three asterisks in front of Pseudopod 399 indicate that the story was a podcast original. All others are podcast narrations of stories that were originally printed elsewhere (cited on the linked pages).

James Tiptree Jr. was a pseudonym adopted by a woman to help sell her stories (since women read both genders but men are more likely to read works by men). Much of her work explored gender issues; "The Screwfly Solution," which was published in 1977 and won the Nebula Award for best novelette, certainly did this. I don't want to spoil the plot, so I won't say more about that, other than to emphasize that all the conflicts over gender issues during the past year make it seem more horribly relevant than ever.
Bonus: It's in epistolary form, which is always neat when done well. (That's why so many narrators are listed.)