Friday, October 30, 2009

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams


When I was younger, I put so much stock into things that I had discovered first. If everybody knew about it, then it was no longer cool.

When I got a little older, I gave up on that preconception though. It's not true. Take Harry Potter for example. I know many people who hate Harry Potter even though they've never spent a minute reading one of the novels, just because of the sensation it caused. They don't know what they're missing. Those books are really good, even though everybody likes them.

Of course, someday, years from now, they'll seem tired. People will experience the whole series by the movies without ever reading a paragraph. And so on. There is that drawback. If everybody knows about it, then it permeates our culture, and becomes one of those things that you know without actually experiencing it. Like the writings of Shakespeare have become. Any idea how many of the common turns of phrase that people use on a daily basis are lifted from the pages of Shakespearean plays? A lot...check out this site for proof.

That's the problem that I ran into with The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. It's been around a long time, about as long as I have. Growing up, I've heard more and more about how this book goes. Culminating in the film version from a few years ago, where I learned about most of the little parts I hadn't already heard. So when I finally took up the book, it was too late for anything in it to feel fresh and interesting. I still liked it, but it wasn't the experience I was hoping for.

Usually, when you hear about something for so long, it's amazing to finally experience it for yourself. Like my experience with reading Frank Herbert's Dune for the first time. What I knew of it was widened out and expanded. That wasn't the case with The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy though. It wasn't a complement to the movie...it was merely another telling. Which made me sad.

I think the problem might have been the fact that it was comedy. Retelling jokes doesn't tend to make them funnier, instead they get less funny. The punchline can't surprise you any more once you've heard it.

It's too bad. I still recommend the book to anyone, because it's fun, and, hey, it's really short too. And maybe you haven't had the whole thing spoiled for you like I had. It is a good book. And for a comedy to still be gaining fans 30 years later really says something about its quality.

Anyway, next up for me: Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. That's one that I know almost nothing about...

Friday, October 9, 2009

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow


My first introduction to Little Brother was on StarShipSofa. Back in May of last year, Tony played a 30 minute sample of the book. I got to hear the start of a young super-hacker's adventure. He snuck out of his heavily surveilled school, fooling gait-cams, arphids, and brown-nosing snitches to do it. It was fun, and enjoyable. I never expected what was to come.

Our hero, Marcus, and his friends are out of school, trying to play an internet game that involves doing things in the real world as well as online. Suddenly, a terrorist attack occurs, and while trying to get help, our main characters instead get arrested by the Department of Homeland Security. This is where the story takes a sharp left turn and changes from what I had expected it to be, judging by the preview StarShipSofa provided, to what the story really was about.

There are some really difficult moments to read in this book, including several incidents of state sponsored torture, but it is all well worth it. This book was absolutely terrific. Anyone who reads more than a book a year or so knows the feeling when you get into a novel, and all you want to do is keep reading. It gets late at night, and you have to be at school or work early the next morning, but you can't bring yourself to put the book down. Your house is an utter disaster, and you really should be cleaning up, getting your kids dressed, changing the baby's diaper, but instead all you want to do is read more in the story. My wife is particularly susceptible to this disease. She tends to finish books in a day or less, because once she pops, she can't stop.

Well, I'm not so susceptible as that, but it happens on occasion, and with this book, it hit me hard. All I wanted to do was read...or listen anyway. I had the audio version of the book, read by Kirby Heybourne (why, by the way was a great pick for a reader. He was a completely believable 17 year-old. I'm sure that might be a drawback if he's reading other books, but perfect for this story). It's harder to be addicted to a book when you have to listen to it. Well, maybe that's not true. You can take care of a lot of those chores that you might have to ignore if you had to read the book with your eyes. I could mow the lawn and read at the same time...how talented am I? But when you're addicted to a book, and you're listening to it, you can't go any faster to find out what happens next like you can when you read.

Anyway, after several nights of less sleep than I needed, I finished this book. It only took me a matter of days. And I recommend it to anyone. It's a fun read, but beyond that, it opens your eyes to a lot of things that you've probably never considered. I hadn't. Wandering aimlessly through my suburban life, I never considered the impact of surveillance, of spying on our own people, and what it might lead to. I have been concerned with what rights we might have given up in the name of security, and this story is all about that kind of stuff. Check it out and enjoy.

Up next for me? The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams. It's a short one, so I should be back soon with another report.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Neuromancer by William Gibson

I didn't know thing one about this book going into it. It shows just what a noob I really am when it comes to science fiction, or at least to certain corners and alcoves of the science fiction pad. I would have approached it with more trepidation had I known. When I told Rish what I was reading next he said, "Oh, you couldn't pay me to read Gibson." But I looked at the list that Liz Mierzejewski put on her comment post, and saw that Neuromancer was number 10, and it was also specifically mentioned on Jason Sanford's story, Book Scouts Of The Galactic Rim, and I went ahead and gave it a shot.

I didn't know that the story was a cyberpunk story though. Cyberpunk is a genre that I have a really, really hard time with. I struggle with any science fiction story that uses a lot of specialized jargon, and you can get that in any sub-genre, but with cyberpunk, it's almost mandated. I have to admit that for long periods of time in the story, I had only the loosest grip on what was going on. If I hadn't mentioned on the blog that I was going to be reading it next, I probably would have quit on it. But I bravely soldiered on, and by the end...I still didn't like it much.

I never did figure out what most of the slang and BS in the story meant. What are microsofts? They're not related to the company of the same name, which hadn't even released its first version of Windows by the time this book was published. What is an Ono-Sendai? I think I finally figured out that it is the brand of computer he was using, but I could have been wrong. He mentioned the Yakuza a lot, and I think I finally figured out that he was talking about the Japanese mafia, but I don't think he ever helped me to figure that out--I may have looked it up on Wikipedia or something like that, I can't remember. And I still don't know what Flatlining is. People were said to be flatlining, which I would assume meant to die, but there was the flatline construct as well. And then there was the frequently mentioned Hosaka, and the place called Freeside, which I didn't figure out for a long while was actually a space station not a city on a Caribbean island or something. A lot of it I still wouldn't get, but I just found a sort of glossary that someone has compiled over at Wikipedia.

One other thing that I really despise is stories about drug addicts. Maybe if it was a story about someone who had kicked drugs, and was doing their best to stay off the stuff, but I just don't care what an effed up drug addict is doing to score their next hit. I don't think that Pulp Fiction is an awesome movie, I couldn't make it through Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, and I didn't enjoy my attempt at reading Naked Lunch. Case was a drug addict who did take some left turns in search of drugs, but not enough to completely sour me on the story, it was just mildly annoying and stupid.

One of my big problems may have been the fact that I listened to this book in audio rather than reading a print version. With material like this, it can be infinitely valuable to be able to flip back a page or two, or a chapter or two, to reread a part that will ease your confusion about the part your reading now. But with audio, you just can't do that. I wonder if I would have liked Dune as much as I did if I'd listened to the audio rather than reading the actual book? I tried to listen to the Dune sequel, and couldn't get past the first tape, but that could have been the severely annoying voice that the reader had more than the material itself.

Anyway, if you haven't figured it out already, this book was not for me. I suppose it's a classic, the first cyberpunk novel or at least the first big one, but cyberpunk just isn't really my thing. To make cyberpunk work for me, a lot has to be done to soften the landing. Others, I'm sure, love it, and that's okay, we're all different, and I'm glad we are. It makes life so much richer.

I'm happy to be moving on. Up next...Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. It's not on the classic list, but it was a Hugo nominee this year, so I figure it's worthy. I hope there's no cyberpunk in it...

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Incredibles

Okay, I have gone completely soft, and haven't written the last of these things I started way back in May. Please forgive me. *Crickets* Oh, that's right, I forgot nobody reads this blog anyway.

So, back in May, the kids and I got together, pulled out the blankets and pillows, popped some popcorn, and sat down to watch The Incredibles. It didn't have a short cartoon that played before it, so we watched the Carstrailer, and went straight into the film.

Rish really likes to do lists of top five or bottom five whatevers--Marvel super hero films, John Hughes films, Johnny Depp films, and so on. We've done best Marvel films, best DC films, but he's never done a list of the best super hero films of all time. If I was forced to make that list, I think I would put The Incredibles at number three.

And as far as movies that show super heroes being super heroes, it is far and away number one. Nowhere else can you see super heroes with such an amazing grasp on their abilities. The Incredibles are all new versions of already established super heroes. For the most part, they get their abilities from the other family of super heroes, The Fantastic Four. Mr. Incredible would be like The Thing. He's not made of rock, but he has super strength, and is nearly invulnerable to attack. Elastigirl is obviously Mr. Fantastic with the stretchy power. Violet has the powers of Invisible Girl, able to become invisible and create force fields. But then there's Dash, he's not The Human Torch, but instead he's Flash. Now Flash hasn't had a film adaptation yet, but The Fantastic Four certainly have, two of them in fact. If you put the two Fantastic Four films side by side with The Incredibles, it will quickly become obvious that Brad Bird and the folks at Pixar have a much better handle on what the FF can do than the people behind the actual Fantastic Four film. Which is a little sad to me. I've heard from a friend that Marvel is planning a Fantastic Four reboot. If that's true, they better get Mr. Bird on the phone, but it might not be possible, because apparently Pixar is now planning an Incredibles sequel.

I love the way The Incredibles starts with the raw interviews of the supers from "back in the day." It's hilarious stuff, and it hearkens back to Pixar's fake outtakes gag from A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, and Monsters, Inc. It's fun to see the attitudes of the two main characters, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl reversed from what they become later in the film as well. Mr. Incredible thinks it might be nice to settle down, and Elastigirl says there's no way she'd stop hero work and leave it to the boys.

The first segment of the film, showing the glory days of super heroes is excellent. It's filled with humorous lines, in fact, most of the ones I quote from this film are from this first section. (Don't you hate those people who are endlessly quoting movie lines?) My favorite thing in all this is Bomb Voyage. What an inspired goofy character. I can't help but smile whenever I hear him say, "Monsieur Incroyable!" Also, the demise of the super heroes seems all too plausible. Our crappy, selfish litigious society is likely to take something good like super heroes and say, "You didn't save my life, you ruined my death!"

So, The Incredibles is the story of a family, that has fallen apart, and needs to find a way back together. Bob, also known as Mr. Incredible, has lost sight of what matters most. He is constantly looking over his shoulder at his glorious past, and misses the glorious present right in front of him. Helen, also known as Elastigirl, has forgotten who she is, and her husband as well, and settled in for a lifetime of frumpitude, hiding and surviving, instead of living and thriving. And then there's the kids, struggling, as all kids do, for their own identity. Who are they? Violet's invisible, not literally, just figuratively. And Dash is a pest in need of an outlet.

When these people finally figure it all out, and come together as a family again, it makes me cry. It's so triumphant. The moment when the bad guys attack the family as a whole, and they team up to take them on gives me chills. It's just so completely satisfying. I wish that there was a possibility that I could write something so...Incredible.

Again, like Finding Nemo, they decided on a different composer. It's not a Randy Newman score, instead we have the first appearance of Michael Giacchino. He'll be back for Ratatouille, which is another fine score, but it doesn't compare to this one. This score is great. It comes across to me as a James Bond-like score. It's so very sixties sounding, brassy, and brash. It fits the film perfectly, and it's a pleasure to listen to.

There is only one complaint that I have about this film. This is the first film that Pixar did in which humans were the main characters. They chose to go the stylistic route, rather than duplicate the disastrously creepy realism of Warner Brothers's The Polar Express (Although The Incredibles came out first, so I suppose duplicate isn't quite the right word). I think that was a good idea, but here and there, there are characters that are a little too stylized, when placed next to the other fairly normal characters. For example, Dash's teacher, who he torments by placing thumbtacks on his chair, has an unusual, large football-shaped head. By himself, the character doesn't cause any problems, but placed next to Dash, Helen, and the Principal, all nearly normal-looking characters, he stands out garishly. It is enough to make you forget that you're just watching a movie, breaking the suspension of disbelief. It's not enough, however to cause me to dislike the film. It's more like a very small zit on a really hot, busty chick who digs you. It's very easy to overlook.All in all, this is a movie that you must see if you haven't. From the little touches of comedy, like the self-destructing message setting off the fire sprinklers, or Mr. Incredible's back going out on him while he battles the Omnidroid, to the excellent action, lovable characters, and interesting story arc. Oh, and Jason Lee is in it too, so what's not to like?