The Risen Empire

June 15th, 2003

I thoroughly enjoyed Scott Westerfield's Evolution's Darling when I came across it last year. It felt a lot like one of Iain M Banks' Culture novels – which is definitely a good thing in my book.

Judging by David Kennedy's review on rec.arts.sf.written, Westerfield's follow-up, The Risen Empire is a more conventional tale. A quick taste of Westerfield's style, quoted from David Kennedy's review:

The constellation of eyes glistened, reflecting the sunlight that penetrated the cultured-diamond doors sliding closed being Senator Nara Oxham. The ocular glint raised her hackles, marking as it did the eyes of a noctural predator. On Oxham's home planet Vasthold, there ranged human-hunting bears, paracoyotes, and feral nightdogs. On some deep, instinctive level, Nara Oxham knew those eyes to be warnings.

The creatures were splayed – fifteen or twenty of them – on an invisible bed of lovely gravity. They wafted like polychrome clouds down the wide, breezy hallways of the Emperor's inner palace, carried by the ambient movement of air. Her apathy bracelet was set to high, as always here in the crowded capital, but sufficient sensitivity remained to feel some measure of their inhuman thoughts. They regarded her cooly as they drifted past, secure in their privilege, in their demigodhood, and in their speechless wisdom, accumulated over sixteen centuries of langour. Of course, their species had never, even in the millennia before Imperial decree had elevated them to semidivine status, doubted its innate superiority.

They were imperious consorts, these personal familiars of His Risen Majesty. They were Felis Domesticus Immortalis.

They were, in a word, cats.

And in a few more words, cats who would never die.

Senator Nara Oxham hated cats.

[…] Nara Oxham's constituency was an entire planet, but here in the Diamond Palace the mighty senator found herself intimidated by the housepets."

Nice.

I'm always up for a thoughtful space opera, so I'll be keeping an eye out for the paperback edition of The Risen Empire.

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Talking Dog Sale

June 15th, 2003

In Tennessee, a guy sees a sign in front of a house: "Talking Dog for Sale."

He rings the bell, and the owner tells him the dog is in the backyard. The guy goes into the backyard and sees a black mutt just sitting there.

"You talk?" he asks.

"Yep," the mutt replies.

"So, what's your story?"

The mutt looks up and says, "Well, I discovered this gift pretty young; and I wanted to help the government, so I told the CIA about my gift, and in no time they had me jetting from country to country, sitting in rooms with spies and world leaders, because no one figured a dog would be eavesdropping.

"I was one of their most valuable spies eight years running.

"The jetting around really tired me out, and I knew I wasn't getting any younger and I wanted to settle down. So I signed up for a job at the airport to do some undercover security work, mostly wandering near suspicious characters and listening in, I uncovered some incredible dealings there and was awarded a batch of medals.

"Had a wife, a mess of puppies, and now I'm just retired."

The guy is amazed. He goes back in and asks the owner what he wants for the dog.

The owner says, "Ten dollars."

The guy says, "This dog is amazing. Why on earth are you selling him, so cheap?"

The owner replies, "He's such a liar……. He didn't do any of that shit."

[Via Pamie]

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Michael Swanwick

June 14th, 2003

Over at Science Fiction Weekly, Nick Gevers conducts a long interview with Michael Swanwick, the reigning champion author of short-short SF stories, including the wonderfully droll Periodic Table of Science Fiction. Another of his pet subjects is dinosaurs:

Having caught the paleontological bug: Why, in your view, do dinosaurs constitute such a powerful cultural and intellectual icon, within SF and without?

Swanwick: That's an easy one. It's because dinosaurs are (a) monsters, (b) real and (c) safely extinct. It's an unbeatable combination! My paleontologist friends hate it when I use the M-word, but let's be honest here, that's the appeal. There's a story that Kenneth Carpenter saw a Godzilla movie when he was a boy and immediately decided that he was going to devote his life to studying such creatures. Then, when his parents gently broke it to him that Godzilla was imaginary, he switched his loyalties over to dinosaurs, as the next best thing. Decades later he discovered a new species of theropod and named it Gojirasaurus. Thus keeping a better faith with his younger self than most adults do.

This is one reason that I deplore the rush to represent all dinosaurs as being covered with feathers, even those for which we have perfectly featherless skin imprints. Where are we going to get the next generation of paleontologists if T. rex looks like a gigantic parakeet? The mind reels.

Not only was this an informative and amusing interview, but as a bonus it expanded my vocabulary by introducing me to the word "abecedary."

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"I touch you on your lettuce, you massage my spinach… Sexily."

June 13th, 2003

Could these be the logs of the oddest cybersex session ever?

[Via NTK]

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Reload Wallpaper

June 13th, 2003

A few weeks ago I linked to a couple of caricatures of Agent Smith and Morpheus by Tim Shinn. Now he's finished off his series of Matrix-themed work with a knockout of a wallpaper image featuring Neo, Morpheus and Trinity. (If you look closely at Neo's shades you'll spot Agent Smith too.)

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Compare and Contrast

June 12th, 2003

On the one hand, we have Dr Cynthia Breazeal (NB/- New York Times link – free registration required), who wants to make robots with which it's possible to interact socially. On the other, we have Jon Carroll already feeling way too much empathy towards his vacuum cleaner.

[Interview with Dr Breazeal (aka Dr Susan Calvin) via Amygdala]

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Philanthropy and software

June 12th, 2003

Dave Zeiler's A Conversation With Steve Wozniak (Part 1, Part 2) doesn't contain any major revelations, but it's always refreshing to read about one of the true heroes of the computer revolution.

You've been heavily involved in philanthropy over the years?

Oh. I gave away almost all my money. Absolutely. To very good causes. I'm so glad of it.

[List of philanthropic efforts snipped]

Are you still involved in this kind of work?

Yeah, but very little, very little. I don't have that much of the money left. About nothing [laughs].

You don't seem to care.

Oh, no no. What do you care about in life? People grow up with different value systems.

And I never sought money. I didn't start Apple to make money. I never once went for it and it was just strange. It was just there. It's an encumbrance I have, and I've got to try to use it wisely. Solving worthy needs is more important.

It's sorely tempting to contrast the Woz attitude with that of a certain Mr William H Gates III, but that's not entirely fair: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is ploughing vast sums into equally worthy projects in America and around the world. The big difference is that Gates is both a philanthropist and a ruthless businessman, whereas Woz is a tremendously clever engineer who was happy to leave being a businessman to Steve Jobs and Mike Markkula. Wait another forty or fifty years and the name "Bill Gates" will probably be associated more with philanthropic works than computer software.

[Via MacMinute]

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There goes the neighbourhood

June 12th, 2003

One week it's Shadowbane being hacked so it turns into a Buffy season finale, the next it's The Sims Online morphing into The Sopranos.

[Via MetaFilter]

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The Two Towers Extended Edition

June 12th, 2003

Susan Wloszczyna, writing in USA Today, has word of some of the goodies on the extended edition DVD of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers that will stretch the film to a mind-boggling 3 hours and 43 minutes. More Ents! Eowyn cooks! A flashback featuring Boromir! Aragorn whispering sweet nothings in Elvish! How can I not buy this DVD?

[Via Slashdot]

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Remake hell

June 11th, 2003

Inspired by the news that a sequel to V might be in the works, Max welcomes Newsday TV critic Noel Holston's suggestion that there's a long list of 80s SF TV shows which are ripe for a CGI-heavy remake.

I think this is an awful idea. Or rather, better special effects should be about the seventh or eighth priority, not the first. To the extent that V – by which I mean the original mini-series, not the sequels – was a success, it was mostly because the story drew parallels with World War II and the Holocaust in a science fictional setting, not simply because of the pretty flying saucers. (When I saw the opening episode of V I found the special effects to be just fine: specifically, my first thought was "They've just nicked the opening scene from Childhood's End!", not "Hey, that's a barely adequate bit of SFX work.") Holston suggests that the miniseries of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles would be a candidate for a remake because the special effects and makeup work was poor, but it seems to me that of all the early 80s SF series that would be the one which was least reliant on high quality effects work in the first place. Yes, there were spacecraft and Martians, and the special effects weren't great, but that didn't get in the way for this viewer.

Granted, you can use CGI to tell some stories which just weren't practical on a TV budget a decade or two ago: without the ability to cheaply depict different planets and spacecraft, not to mention a variety of reasonably convincing (albeit humanoid) aliens, shows like Farscape and Babylon 5 would have looked very different. Even so, I genuinely believe that those stories could still have been told even with Blake's 7-level effects. In the end, I cared about the people and the situations they found themselves in much more than the eye candy. (Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy the eye candy.)

By all means tell the 80s stories again if you think you can get the message across more effectively now, or where you think a story will have a greater resonance in the light of current circumstances. But don't do it just because you can do flashier SFX now. Is the world really crying out for a better-looking remake of Logan's Run or Manimal?

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"With Futurama we were just making it up as we went along."

June 11th, 2003

Futurama producer David X Cohen discusses the Futurama video game, working with Al Gore and how tricky it was to find Bender's voice.

[Via mssv.net]

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Embarrassing Stories

June 11th, 2003

Embarrassing Stories: fifteen thank-$DEITY-that-wasn't-me moments. For example:

Story #9.

My boyfriend bought me a vibrator for Valentine's Day about a year ago. Still living at home I knew I had to hide it. Well, after having some fun one night I just put it under my mattress.

The next day my brother came in and laid on my bed, when he put pressure on the mattress, my vibrator turned on and started to buzz like crazy. Well, not knowing what it was he came in the living room and said, "sissy this was buzzing under your bed" and handed it to me.

It was a Monday, so my mom and dad and I were watching Fear Factor, and looking at the size of my vibrator, my mom laughed and said, "apparently fear is not a factor for you." And now my dad goes around saying, "BZZZZZZZZZZ." I have never been more embarrassed in my life.

I think my favourite is Story #1, about a very tall man and a particularly cramped aircraft toilet.

[Via dutchbint dot org]

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"Peter Jackson, you ****ing hack!!"

June 9th, 2003

Gollum gave an hilarious acceptance speech on besting Dobby, Kangaroo Jack (!), Scooby-Doo and Yoda to win the Best Virtual Performance award at the MTV Movie Awards.

As TheOneRing.net seems to be struggling to cope with demand for the clip I've mirrored the 8MB Quicktime movie version of the acceptance speech here. Other mirrors can be found in this Slashdot thread.

I'm pretty sure that whirring sound you hear is the late Professor Tolkien reaching about 10,000rpm…

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"It's really hard to believe someone is funny when you've seen a room full of people stare at them like they were the Nuremberg Trial defence team."

June 9th, 2003

Danny O'Brien went to a tech conference and ended up having a flashback to his days as a stand-up comic.

Me and Quinn (who was on the panel too) were both in the same state. We hadn't really worked out who the audience was, and we're both a bit rusty at public speaking. Also, we've had three months fairly intensive dialogue coaching in going "goo goo goo goo goo issy waddy baby!", which may have influenced our normally punchy style.

I think we managed to pull back some credibility in the end. I'm pretty good at damage control. Quinn has a background in bad stand-up gigs as well. I didn't cry when that drunken woman in Edinburgh climbed onto a table and started singing the "Yoooor shite" song to me, so I'm not going to cry when the man from Microsoft says that we're doing his whole industry a disservice. No, no, I sucked up to him instead. Mmm, five minutes on why Microsoft rules. Yeah, that was straight from the heart. No panic in my jellied bloodstream there.

Speaking as someone guaranteed to dry up completely in front of an audience of half a dozen, I have the utmost admiration for anyone who can function in that situation. Writing a funny, insightful article about the experience that same day is blogging above and beyond the call of duty.

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Jealousy

June 9th, 2003

You know, I'm generally a pretty mild-mannered individual, but even I can be pushed too far. Patrick Nielsen Hayden, editor and blogger, I'm looking at you!

June 08, 2003

Sorry, I've been busy. Books I've been reading or re-reading in the last few days: "Sethra Lavode" by Steven Brust. "Shelter" by Susan Palwick. "Eastern Standard Tribe" by Cory Doctorow. Currently reading: "Newton's Wake" by Ken MacLeod.

Oh, that's right, none of these have actually been published yet. Hey, you know, some days, this job doesn't actually suck.

Then, just to taunt his Macleod-loving readers a little further, he throws this little snippet into the comments thread:

Ken MacLeod's "Newton's Wake: A Space Opera" is indeed primo stuff, as Charlie says. Favorite scene so far: the one in which our heroine, semi-stranded on a planet being terraformed by Korean Juche-ists preparatory to selling it to the farmers of "America Offline," curries favor with her hosts by playing them a recording of the play "The Tragedy of Leonid Brezhnev, Prince of Muscovy." Some excerpts of which are given, in iambic pentameter. Exeunt, pursued by a bear.

It's cruel to play with us like this…

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Alfred Bester

June 8th, 2003

Idling away my afternoon reading rec.arts.sf.written, I came across a thread about Alfred Bester which reminded me that I've hardly read any of his shorter fiction. Since the one Bester short I have read – Fondly Fahrenheit – is one of the most memorable short stories I've ever come across, I couldn't resist a quick trip to Abebooks UK to order a copy of Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester. Not that my to-read pile needs to get any higher – I'm going to need planning permission and start rigging it with navigation lights to warn off low-flying aircraft if it grows much taller – but that's not really the point, is it?

The same thread pointed out a delicious little Bester-related joke from Ansible 146:

Imaginary collaborations: '"He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead. He fought for survival with the passion of a beast in a trap. He was delirious and rotting, coming downstairs now, bump bump bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin." Yes, it's Tigger! Tigger! by Alfred Bester and A.A.Milne. The US title is of course The Stairs My Destination .'

I appreciate that at this point about 85% of the visitors to this site are scratching their heads. I can only suggest that you run to your nearest bookshop or library and get your hands on a copy of Alfred Bester's Tiger! Tiger!, otherwise known by the title of the US version, The Stars My Destination. Not for the sake of understanding the joke, but because Bester's Gully Foyle is one of the more memorable characters in 20th century science fiction and the novel he appears in is one of the undisputed classics of the genre.

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Skipping stone

June 8th, 2003

National Geographic's Photo of the Day for today is simply marvellous. The caption – "Leaving a wake like a skipped rock, an antelope speeds through water in Mozambique's Maputo Elephant Reserve" – gets the basic facts across, but doesn't begin to express how lovely that image is. Not that I can do any better, so I'll just put it this way: go and see for yourself!

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Gigantic

June 7th, 2003

I very much doubt that Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns), director A J Schnack's documentary about They Might Be Giants, will show up in cinemas outside London, even assuming it makes its way across the Atlantic at all. Jesse Hassenger's review at PopMatters suggests it's going to be worth looking out for:

The band has often been marginalized because of their humorous, sometimes surreal approach to pop music, leading to an endless parade of adjectives like "quirky" and "goofy." Gigantic showcases their strong songwriting and good humor more naturally, treating them as fun and smart more than silly and smart-alecky, and the concert stuff, if sometimes overlong, captures the genuine joy and energy of their live shows.

How much of my enjoyment of Gigantic was based on its subjects, rather than filmmaking Flansburgh and Linnell's chemistry gives the impression that almost anyone could capture them at their best; their non-interview footage is especially charming and funny ("I'd like to be known as the Mike Love of They Might Be Giants," Flansburgh says at one point. "All the bad vibes start here."). We see them rehearsing, talking, goofing around, obsessing over coffee. It makes you wonder: is director AJ Schnack astute to capture them on film, or just lucky?

Yet another reason to be thankful for multi-region DVD players…

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The Incredibles

June 7th, 2003

Judging by the teaser, Pixar's The Incredibles looks like tremendous fun. Not that a good teaser is a guarantee, but the hot streak Pixar have been on ever since Toy Story gives cause for optimism.

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More Toddler Tales

June 7th, 2003

Another volume of The Story About the Toddler is up. More quality parenting tips from the man who isn't afraid to tell the truth:

Now that our baby Cordelia is sixteen months old, all of the pieces are falling into place. It is rapidly becoming clear that she is a sinister creature, a Bad Seed, which may have the potential for actual True Evil.

Even now, I can hear grandparents shrieking with dismay, perceiving that someone is writing what they would perceive as slander about their beloved, adorable grandchild. But trust me, despite her cuteness, which is so flawless that it makes pretty much every other child of roughly the same age (including yours) look like a lump of spackle in comparison, even now Cordelia is starting to dance the forbidden tango with dark powers.

[Account of specific acts of evil snipped]

Now don't get me wrong. I have no problem with the current moral alignment of her sixteen month old brain. Evil people live happier lives, they make more money, and they get all the good tax breaks. If I play my cards right, I can make myself useful to her and get some of that filthy lucre she generates thrown my way.

It'll work out. I'll just have to remember to be real careful walking down stairs late at night after Cordelia learns what a "will" is.

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