Sat May 07 2022 12:04 April Film Roundup:
- The Quiet Earth (1985): Watched this for free on Youtube because Kris mentioned it, and it really is a very Kris movie. The sort of movie you show your kid when they're ten if you're engaged in an experiment to create another Kris. However I can't recommend it wholeheartedly. There is a very distinctive climax to this film about half an hour in, and the rest of the movie is less cool and a bit anticlimactic. Cool ending though.
- Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010): We watched this because it came up on Framed and Sumana hadn't seen it. I saw it in the theater, pre-Film Roundup, and it holds up pretty well. In fact some of the cinematography that used to read as explicitly videogamey now just looks like Marvel-style action movie stuff, indicating a Man with a Movie Camera style triumph.
I wasn't the biggest fan of Allison Pill's performance in season 1 of Star Trek: Picard, but I loved her work in season 2 when Dr. Jurati hum-de-dum with the spoiler lady. I guess you could say I've been allisonpilled. Anyway, it was a big surprise and treat to see her as Kim Pine in this film, and to then notice how her performance in Picard uses those same moments of frustration and sarcasm.
- Downhill (2014): We borrowed the DVD from some friends who'd joined Sumana on the Coast-to-Coast Walk dramatized in the movie. As we started to watch the film, Sumana got out her maps and paraphernalia for her walk... which included a postcard advertising this movie! Sadly, that was the highlight of the evening.
Downhill leans heavily on the walk as a natural through-line, and the plot is very episodic and haphazard. Which would be okay except the movie also has the all too common problems of "no one's particularly likeable" and "one super d-bag spoils everything," so why keep watching? The answer proved to be Jeremy Swift (Higgins from Ted Lasso), and the nature views, which were spectacular.
- Departures (2008): I couldn't remember the name of the movie because Passages is a better English name. Even when I knew that wasn't it, my mind kept filling in "Passages" and I had to do some embarrassingly specific search like
japanese film funeral washing best foreign picture. Anyway, this is a nice little film. Also very episodic, but I didn't mind because everyone tried their best instead of being a jerk. There is a lot of scenes where people grieve a dead loved one but they found different ways to show it so it doesn't get repetitive. Content note: it's possible they killed an octopus for this movie. I stopped watching Iron Chef altogether ten seconds after the Chairman unveiled those tanks full of octopus, so I'd want to have known.
Sat Apr 02 2022 13:22 March Film Roundup:
A real big month for movies that each parody a lot of other movies. But a real small Roundup of such movies, only two:
- Support Your Local Sheriff (1969): While watching this milquetoast comedy I started to think that Blazing Saddles might specifically be a parody of it, but when looking at IMDB afterwards I decided they're going after the same cliches, and Blazing Saddles gets to the heart of the matter in a way that makes Support Your Local Sheriff hardly seem like a parody.
I've made fun of Mel Brooks's sentimentality before, and I will do so again, but the best parody comes from a place of deep love for the thing being parodied, and I did not feel that love with Support Your Local Sheriff. It felt more like an ancestor of the Scary Movie franchise. There were a few good gags, but damn if I can remember what they were.
I think Blazing Saddles first came to mind while watching this because both films use the technique of letting the joke run way too long—the mud fight in Sheriff, the bean dinner in Saddles. I almost never like this. I guess Space Ghost Coast to Coast pulled it off a couple times.
To say something nice about Support Your Local Sheriff: James Garner's character does try really hard to resolve situations nonviolently, in an almost Star Trek way. But is that supposed to be admirable, or part of the joke?
- Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story (2007): From the sunset of the "toss some super offensive gags into this comedy, it's fine" era of Hollywood, to be followed by the dawn of "offensive gags are okay so long as the characters are seen to take offense." Overall this was really fun, less because of the source material and more because it's a wide-ranging comedy that doesn't care about presenting a coherent world because it's parodying other movies.
To draw a comparison to the "let the joke run way too long" thing I mentioned earlier, let's discuss Eddie Vedder's cameo in Walk Hard, where he gives a rambling introduction speech. I can see the argument that this is the same type of joke as the bean dinner in Blazing Saddles, but I beg to differ. In fact, I demand to differ! The screenplay starts off with a few pure repetitions, then starts mixing up the rhetoric as you understand that this is a joke based on repetition, and then ends when it runs out of good ideas. Versus a physical comedy bit that's just the same thing over and over.
Sat Apr 02 2022 12:25 Two Spacesuits:
My story "Two Spacesuits" is published in the April 2022 issue of Clarkesworld! I wrote "Two Spacesuits" in 2017, and over time the subject matter—your normcore parents join a self-medicating Internet cult—has only become more and more relevant. I made a few minor edits in late 2021 to set the story during the pandemic, instead of the sprawling 21st-century untime you see in a lot of these stories, but everything apart from the obvious "curbside pickup" type stuff was there originally. Thanks to Neil Clarke for picking up the story.
"Two Spacesuits" has a heavy focus on one of my big writer themes: cognitive dissonance and the defense mechanisms we deploy to deal with it.
“You’re still doing it! Oh my God! You make up these stories to explain your behavior to yourselves. When one story falls apart you just switch to another one.”
As a writer I hope I don't come off solely as an observer of human frailty, but this is one of my favorite kinds of human frailty to observe. There's a bit of this in Constellation Games when Ariel and Dana are talking about Curic's ambivalence:
“We'd pick an option at random and create post hoc rationalizations,” said Dana. “Humans do it, too.”
In Situation Normal, Evidence causes this behavior as a side effect (this is why Evidence is called that!), and this is most clear in "We, the Unwilling," the SN bonus story, where Evidence pushes the POV character into ever more extreme states of cognitive dissonance:
“You ask the Internet about Captain Jim Kirk,” said Nor firmly, “and then we can do business based on a shared understanding of the facts.”
“I don’t want to,” said Kenta. There was nothing else to say. The only possible next step towards completing the mission was to avoid certain pieces of information.
Can readers expect a respite from further explorations of this concept in The Constellation Speedrun? My sources say no.
Sun Mar 06 2022 20:07 February Film Roundup:
- Werewolf of Washington (1973): The summary of this film promised a level of political satire which was not met. An early illustration that quoting the catchphrases and quirks of a hated political figure is not intrinsically satirical or funny. (A lesson that, alas, still eludes us.) The screenwriter/director is well-informed enough to base the main character pretty closely on William Safire, but doesn't really know what the President does, or knows but wasn't able to work it into the screenplay. In this film, POTUS is basically the mayor of Washington, D.C.
Considered as a lowbrow comedy rather than a satire, this is... still pretty bad. But I laughed and laughed at the scene in the White House bowling alley, where the President spouts platitudes as Dean Stockwell's character gets his wolfman fingers stuck in a bowling ball.
- The Laughing Policeman (1973): A pretty good police procedural starring San Francisco public transit. Bolsters my hypothesis that in the early 1970s, it was easier to shoot a "big American city" movie in San Francisco than New York. There are a lot of location shots in this film that would have been really difficult to get in New York. Walter Matthau is nice and jowly, and Bruce Dern makes a plot point out of the fact that the 1970s cop mustache is the same as the 1970s gay mustache.
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): This is a film where not much happens, and also a film where everyone these days goes in knowing the ending, but damn if it's not engaging for almost all of its nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime. For a lot of films made between 1975 and 1985 I can be entertained just watching the set dressing, and the set dressing here is top-notch.
I was really skeptical of the decision to give Francois Truffaut a major acting part, but it works. "This character needs a translator" is a dynamic you don't see in films very often, and they play it naturally while also getting some good gags out of it.
- Evolution (2001): Like Spaced Invaders passim, this is one of those bad sci-fi films I've always kind of wanted to watch even though I knew it was bad. The difference is I could have easily seen Evolution when it came out, since I wasn't in high school, but... I just didn't get around to it, I guess. Anyway, I had the right idea. In a sign of my own growth as a critic, if I had seen this in 2001 I would have been very upset by the inaccuracies surrounding the mechanics of evolution, but for me in 2022 that's far from the worst problem with the movie.
It's not bad at the start, when the stakes are no higher than the egos of a couple of professors, but it rapidly escalates into a world-saving thing and I don't care. But then Dan Aykroyd reads the phone book for a while; that's fun.
According to IMDB trivia, it was Julianne Moore's idea to give her character a character trait. Good thinking! PS: Shout-out to the Hallucigenia reference.
- Moon 44 (1990): This is a bad film that is interesting theoretically but not in practice. Roland Emmerich, a German living in West Germany, made a Hollywood-style film in English to try to sell it to Americans. Sort of like if Billy Wilder had directed Bringing Up Baby before fleeing Austria. And it's really believable! Moon 44 looks just like the American movies it's ripping off (Blade Runner, Aliens, and of course the big S. W.). It even does a good job of catching the 1990 Hollywood zeitgeist a la Total Recall. When Moon 44 flopped, Emmerich eliminated the middlecountry and just started directing American movies, including Independence Day, a film that feels like the much better second draft of this boring movie.
I did not finish this and can't recommend it at all. I think I made it about 45 minutes in? I started longing for Mike and the 'bots (Joel wouldn't have bothered with this film), and not long afterwards I bailed out. The visual effects look great, very crunchy and Turnbull-ish, but only so long as you're looking at screenshots and not watching the film itself.
(1) Thu Feb 10 2022 19:03 January Film Roundup:
- Local Hero (1983): Another excellent, gentle Bill Forsyth comedy built on a near-Billy Wilder darkness and cynicism. Not saying much about it because you should just watch it.
- Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003): Sumana took a few introductory Hindi classes through the local library, so we watched a lot of Bollywood this month to get a little immersion. Looking back at it, this movie was just okay, but our enjoyment was greatly magnified from being set in New York City and watched in the deep of winter at the height of the Omicron surge. We were constantly pausing it and playing games like "Mock the Geography" and "NYC or Toronto?" For the record, I believe only one shot was actually filmed in Jackson Heights -- the brief vox pop outside the produce market.
Highlight: the epic, hyper-American "Pretty Woman" street party dance number ("They should show this in the line for Customs." - Sumana). Lowlight: everything else Shah Rukh Khan's character does. ("This guy is annoying." - Sumana (paraphrase))
- My Favorite Year (1982): A very fun period comedy of the sort it's hard to imagine anyone making nowadays, partly because the corresponding Favorite Year would be 1994. It's super-sentimental about a bygone era of entertainment in a way that just wouldn't... what's this? My Mel Brooks sense... tingling!
Likewise, the film My Favorite Year (1982) is loosely based on Brooks's experiences as a writer on [Your Show of Shows] including an encounter with the actor Errol Flynn.
That explains that!
- Queen (2013): By far the best Bollywood film we saw this month, a female-empowerment film that's also a fun tour of Europe. Rajkummar Rao takes a villain turn, and is believably obnoxious and entitled.
- Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019): A queer rom-com that builds empathy using a Hamlet-ish play-within-a-play ("can you play The Wedding of Gonzago?") and has a nice twist where you think Rajkummar Rao is the romantic lead unless you already know how act two is gonna go, which Sumana did and I didn't. This was the movie where we noticed that Rao, although good-looking enough to play the romantic lead, seems to prefer roles where "romantic lead" is a psych-out: he's an entitled jerk (Queen), he's wrong about being the romantic lead (this film), or the romance just isn't important to the story (Newton).
- Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui (2021): A second queer rom-com, with a wackier tone than Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. This one builds empathy by showing you real-world news clips, which is the exact opposite technique of play-within-a-play, and would be like me reviewing this movie by quoting other reviews of it. Always nice to see the stock film character "supportive parent(s) of queer character," whether played serious as it is here or comedically like in Booksmart.
There's another stock film character who always shows up in twos, and I can reliably get a laugh out of Sumana by referring to them as "Merry and Pippin." Anyway, there's a Merry and Pippin in this film. See also, e.g. Logan Lucky (2017).
- Eye of the Needle (1981): A thriller that was all right but gave me a good thrill about halfway through when the two plots joined up. It's one of those "everything goes wrong for our competent main character" films, except, twist: the main character is a Nazi and we're rooting for the "everything goes wrong" side of the ledger. Double twist: everything goes wrong for everyone, resulting in ruined lives all around. At least the timeline is preserved.
- The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973): What if crime... but very little grime? This is one of the cleanest-looking 1970s crime flicks I've seen. Lots of suburban banks, roadside parks, spacious parking lots... Even the bar, the bowling alley and the diner are clean. (And that bowling alley has a hell of an arcade, though you only see it in a quick pan.) Nothing's stylish like in The Godfather, just shabbily respectable. A good choice for a film on the classic "no real difference between crime and business" thesis, a film where people betray each other without raising their voices and the most objectionable thing that happens is that one of Eddie's guns gets used.
(2) Wed Feb 09 2022 18:40 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2021:
Still alive and healthy, though that seems less of an accomplishment than last year. Looking through photos from 2021 shows some outings, some visits with friends and family, but thinking back on it it just seems like an annoying haze. At least we have Things, and the Review thereof, to keep us company:
The crummy.com Books of the Year are: Endless Frontier by G. Pascal Zachary, Red Plenty by Francis Spufford, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, and Becoming Trader Joe by Joe Coulombe and Patty Civalleri. All good stuff.
As is traditional, Film Roundup Roundup has been updated. I had no problem coming up with a top ten for you, thanks in large part to '80s Month, which brought in a lot of classics I'd never seen:
- The Color of Money (1986)
- To Be or Not to Be (1942)
- Ruthless People (1986)
- Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)
- Private Benjamin (1980)
- Bob le Flambeur (1955)
- Trading Places (1983)
- Speed (1994)
- Outrageous Fortune (1987)
- Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
The Crummy.com Game of the Year is the fairly obscure Uurnog Uurnlimited, which sets up a traditional platforming challenge and lets you break it however you want. Runners-up:
Slipways and Dicey Dungeons, as well as good old Spelling Bee and Wordle, which Sumana and I like to play collaboratively.
I spent less time in 2021 than in 2020 playing games, and more of that time on the best games of other years, especially Noita. My Noita fun ended with a bang, when I ended up in an incredible seed (470656790 -- try it out!) which basically let me legitimately see everything in the game I wanted to see.
My story "Mandatory Arbitration" came out in Analog, and I sold both of my non-bad 2020 stories: "Stress Response" and "When there is Sugar", to appear this year. (I actually just sold another story, but that happened in 2022, so more on that later.)
The Constellation Speedrun is still proceeding forward in a very un-speedrun-like manner. I wrote three stories in 2021: "The Coffeeshop AU" plus two Ravy Uvana stories, "The Letter of the Law" and "The Scent of the Governed."
Sat Jan 01 2022 21:31 December Film Roundup:
- Hudson Hawk (1991): A case study in exactly what you can and can't get away with simply by being a big movie star. You can get your movie made, and indulge all your midlife-crisis fantasies, and make it pretty much as quirky as you want, so long as the screenplay fits precisely into the standard Hollywood act structure. But the movie won't make money. We had a good time, but a lot of it was MST3K-style cheesy fun rather than "this movie is great" fun, so I understand why it has a bad reputation. Everyone's acting is over the top, but only Sandra Bernhard is hilariously so.
- Looper (2012): Rian Johnson made the bold decision not to license a random Phillip K. Dick novel for this, and I salute him for it. A good, entertaining story, although the secondary characters were more interesting than the primaries.
"Oh no, she's gonna get fridged."
"This is a time travel movie. She can get fridged multiple times!"
- Red Notice (2021): Meaningless fun, with a level of self-indulgent "let's set up fun things for the cast and crew to do" that reminds me of a number of the other films in this month's Roundup. I precisely predicted the timing of the final twist, but not the twist itself, and how much credit can I even take for the timing? This screenplay has the same structure as Hudson Hawk.
- Giants and Toys (1958): I missed my chance to see this in a theater (Film Forum?) before the pandemic, and watching it with Sumana is a reminder that our taste in arthouse films are a bit different. This had a decent satirical edge, but I was hoping for something more in the vein of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)
- Single All The Way (2021): I've now watched enough of these holiday roms-com that they're jumbling together in my mind especially because it feels like they were all filmed on the same sets. This one's pretty fun, it's not the one with the rock climbing, but what does it have? Skiing, I think? Big points on the screenplay innovation of running the "fake boyfriend" play without ever making a character lie to their family.
- A Bigger Splash (1973): I don't have many good things to say about this rather boring film so I'll just go over them: Not many artist biopics dare to show full-frontal nudity of the artist. The film now has a very interesting documentary aspect when it comes to 1970s gay culture. The bits where the subjects of David Hockney paintings recreate the poses in the paintings were always funny.
- Schmigadoon! (2021): This was basically a movie cut into twenty-minute chunks so I'm putting it here rather than giving it a Television Spotlight. This was a lot of fun with its loving mockery of classic musicals. It's no The Good Place but it scratches the same itch—basically Pleasantville for grown-ups. BTW if you like Cecily Strong as a doctor's SO in a musical parody of antique sitting ducks, don't miss this 2018 SNL skit and its sitting duck.
- Guys and Dolls (1955): The film that single-handedly enforced the gender binary throughout the Eisenhower years. Are you guy or doll? Pick a side! Fortunately, we live in more enlightened times.
Obviously Schmigadoon! made us want to watch a real classic musical, and this was at the top of our list: famous, sounded interesting to both of us, neither of us had seen it. We have tickets to a Broadway show that we've been looking forward to for a while, but I'm not feeling super optimistic right now. At least we can enjoy a miscast Marlon Brando and a seething Frank Sinatra in the comfort of our homes.
- Psych 3: This Is Gus (2021): As the title implies, the Psych films have become less mystery-focused and more of a soap opera where we periodically check in on the beloved characters. We'll keep watching but this can't be getting the franchise any new fans, can it? For this one, a number of people Zoom in their performances, including Kurt Fuller. Stay safe out there!
Mon Dec 13 2021 17:39 Situation Normal Author Commentary #8: "We, the Unwilling":
Have a Situation Normal bonus story! And now, have a commentary essay on that story!
This is probably my very final Situation Normal author commentary, and I'm going to spoil, spoil, spoil this story and the novel and everything related.
I'm not foolish enough to say there's no other Thanksgiving-themed SF stories, given that both Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday) and SF (my favorite literary genre) are one easy conceptual jump away from colonialism, but... there's not many. There's one more now. But since this is the Situation Normal-verse, this story isn't about the actual experience of Thanksgiving, positive or negative. It's about the stories we tell ourselves about Thanksgiving, and what we'll do to make a story feel true.
"We, the Unwilling" has no causal connection to Situation Normal; it doesn't even take place when you think it does. This lets me do two things I couldn't do in the novel. The first is to put a "Lower Decks" type focus on the Outreach Navy's grunts. As my wording of the previous sentence implies, the second is to explicitly talk about Star Trek, the single biggest influence on Situation Normal.
Like Situation Normal, the title of the story comes from a saying popular in the American military. SNAFUs started in World War II, and this saying became popular during the Vietnam War. It's is a pretty long saying with a lot of variations, which makes me think it was translated from another language. The most reasonable attribution I've seen is to nineteenth-century historian Konstantin Josef Jireček. I mean, if it's not him, why him? Did you just pick a guy?
I tried some search-engine tricks to confirm this attribution, hoping this commentary could clear up the confusion once and for all, but nothing doing. Anyway, here's the most common version of the quote:
We, the unwilling, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much, for so long, with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.
This perfectly describes Spaceman Imura's through-line, as he's forced into a Kobayashi Maru situation which he unwittingly solves by wrecking the experiment which was the real point of the test.
The rules of Situation Normal are that everyone gets thrown into an unexpected genre of story and ends up rewarded or punished based on their ability to roll with the punches. Imura gets put into a highly psychological story about his own failings as a spaceman, and ends up getting exactly what he wanted (honorable discharge), because the treatment he got to deal with those failings makes him way too good at rolling with the punches.
In Situation Normal, the person who gets the most "Lower Decks" treatment is Churryhoof, who despite being a pretty high-ranking officer is yanked around like an enlisted for most of the book: by Mrs. Chen, by Jaketown, by Styrqot and Vec, and finally by Captain Rebtet and Thrux. In Chapter 13 of Situation Normal, as Mrs. Chen is breaking Churryhoof down, there's a paragraph which sets the same tone as "We, the Unwilling":
Mrs. Chen, so experienced in psychological warfare, was manipulating Churryhoof in the most obvious way possible. This was how brands spoke to spacemen. It worked because there was no need to create complicated new consumer desires that only a brand could fulfill. Spacemen needed what soldiers have always needed: alcohol, better gear, sex, a good night’s sleep. A way to pretend the horrible thing wasn’t happening, or wouldn’t happen to you. It was working.
Of course, Churryhoof isn't "the unwilling"; she volunteered for the Navy whereas Imura was pressured into it. But Imura technically volunteered too, and Churryhoof was pressured to join by economic necessity. Here she is in chapter 26:
Churryhoof was terrible at talking to brands. That was why she’d joined the Navy: it was a good career that didn’t involve working for a brand. Military service was the only way off of a boondocks colony like Fallback, unless you had no pride and were willing to end up like [Jaketown].
Here's an enlisted being, Specialist Tellpesh, in chapter 38, talking about her upbringing in a boondocks colony:
The whole planet was segregated. Men in the northern hemisphere, women in the south. The equator was like a fucking demilitarized zone. I wanted up, so I went into a recruitment office and I lied about knowing computers.
The difference is that once Churryhoof and Tellpesh join the Navy, they become willing as they find their own competences. Whereas Imura—who has the same drone-pilot job Churryhoof started with—is bad at his job and can't even succeed at washing out.
Churryhoof begins the book with the attitude that has to be inculcated in Imura: "if [she] completed the assignment, step by step, it would cancel out everything [she’d] done to get from one step to the next." Tellpesh grumbles a lot ("Why do I let people talk me into this shit?") but at the end, after everything that's happened to her, she goes AWOL searching for the badass adventure she knows is out there for her. Even after being turned into a hyper-competent problem-solving machine, Imura just doesn't want to be here.
Star Trek: Door Repair Guy
In Constellation Games Ariel's mother calls him when he's on the moon, and you overhear a Bob Newhart type routine as Ariel tries to explain how he got there. "They don't use money, it's like Star Trek. Not the reboot, I'm talking
like Next Generation."
Situation Normal also takes place in a world where people know about Star Trek as a TV show ("Do you also have Mene and Jean-Luc Picard on board?"), but more than that, it's my attempt to provide a revisionist view of Star Trek as, effectively, Federation propaganda.
My absolute favorite bits of Star Trek are the arc-sized villains I call the "anti-Federations"—collective organizations that critique the Federation while mirroring its multi-species structure. Off the top of my head we've got the Terran Empire (evil imperial Federation), the Borg (Federation as cultural homogenizer), the Maquis (breakaways betrayed by the Federation), the Dominion (evil genetic-enslavement Federation), the Xindi (blood-and-soil Federation), and the Emerald Chain (mostly-evil capitalist Federation).
Both civilizations in Situation Normal are anti-Federations of this sort. I mentioned in an earlier commentary that "the Fist of Joy is how Star Trek's Federation sees itself, and the Outreach is the Federation we actually see on screen most of the time." The Terran Outreach is uptight, militaristic, human-dominated, paying lip service to scientific exploration but not delivering much. The Fist of Joy is diverse, decadent, inefficient, ungovernable, superficially friendly but full of hidden pockets that are willing to fight very dirty.
There's a bit in "We, the Unwilling" that looks like a throwaway joke but is actually a reference: Spaceman Imura's declaration that on Enterprise "even the door repair guys were top of their class." The reference is to Douglas A. McLeod's 1990s fanfic "Star Trek: Door Repair Guy", a parody series that debuted prior to the "Lower Decks" ST:TNG episode.
To get a feel for the times, heed this warning from McLeod as he prepares to repost the saga to alt.startrek.creative: "Each episode is about 25k in length, so if you want to save it to disc bear in mind that it's well over a megabyte all together." I reread some of ST:DRG while writing this and 1) the early episodes aren't terrific, but by the time Door Repair Guy gets reassigned to DS9 it's really solid, 2) although not written in screenplay format, each episode is structured like an episode of Star Trek, with commercial breaks that are themselves clever works of science fiction.
ST:DRG did something I've never forgotten, something that has influenced all of my fiction: it focused on the absolute lowest-ranking person in the service. Star Trek has shown the people who get the crappy assignments (source: Lower Decks) and some people who really shouldn't have joined Starfleet (source: some Voyager episode I can't find because Voyager episodes all have super generic names), but they're all officers. All the lower-deckers in the "Lower Decks" episode are officers. I can think of three non-officer Starfleet characters in all of Star Trek: Chief O'Brien, Yeoman Rand, and Crewman Daniels (who, spoiler, is not really in Starfleet!).
Here's me complaining about this a year ago, so you've heard this from me before. Things improved dramatically after I completed Situation Normal, with the debut of Lower Decks, which does a good job of showing people in Starfleet who are effectively enlisted beings, even if they all went to Starfleet Academy for some reason. Situation Normal shows something more like a real-world military, with officers commanding crews full of petty officers and enlisteds, but the enlisted POV isn't represented in the novel.
What you don't see in Star Trek or Situation Normal is Starfleet officers/Outreach spacemen who don't want to or really shouldn't be here. This is entirely fitting since Starfleet is (Leonard's headcanon, but not only Leonard's headcanon) an escape valve for people who just can't even with the post-scarcity Federation—sort of like the Constellation contact missions. And Situation Normal gets so dangerous so quickly that any such character would, like the apparently competent Spaceman Heiss, be killed a third of the way through the book.
Put it all together: "We, the Unwilling" features a grunt who doesn't want to be in the Outreach Navy and really shouldn't be there. This is prior to the war, so his unfitness won't immediately lead to his death. He's given a fantasy memetic framework to justify his service and act as a scaffolding for building real competence. And the fantasy is... Star Trek. Not Next Generation, the reboot. An Abrams-like telling of Captain Kirk's exploits that treats Starfleet as a big adventure and doesn't offer any substantive critique of the society Starfleet protects or the society that created Star Trek. The same Star Trek watched by the people who chose the logo for the United States Space Force.
Star Trek is so big and old and sprawling that you can't just have one critique of it. I can think of two SF novels that get by just parodying the "redshirt" trope. My main fascination is with the friction between the Federation's professed ideals and what we see onscreen. Situation Normal played that out on the large-scale political level, and "We, the Unwilling" plays it out on the much smaller level of family drama and thankless work assignments.
I don't generally offer to do work-for-hire, but I'd love to write a Lower Decks tie-in novel. I think I could pull off something like this while staying within the series bible.
(1) Sun Dec 12 2021 14:00 Replacements for Muji recycled-yarn socks:
For many years Muji sold socks made of recycled yarn. These were, by far, the most comfortable socks I've ever worn. I wore them continuously for about fifteen years, but around 2019 they discontinued the product line. I still have a couple pairs that aren't worn out, but it's only a matter of time; it seems like every time I run them through the wash one of my remaining socks develops a hole. So, one of my low-key hobbies has been looking for a replacement. This blog post presents my findings so far in a way SEO-optimized for people like me.
I believe the appeal of these socks for me is the fabric mix: 70% polyester, 28% cotton, 2% Spandex. Last year Sumana kindly posted an Ask Metafilter question about similar socks, which helped me understand why it's so hard to find socks like these. My sock preferences—smooth and cooling rather than fuzzy and warm—seem to be in the minority.
The closest thing I've found to a replacement is the All In Motion no show socks, available at Target. These are 59% recycled polyester, 34% cotton. They're quite comfortable but, as the name implies, they don't go above my ankles. (Muji also sold recycled-yarn socks in this shorter size, so if those were the ones you liked, this is your sock.) The main difference is that the All In Motion socks are noticeably thicker than the Muji yarn socks. This definitely improves their durability, but also makes them a bit warm. Increased durability seems a Faustian bargain, since I find the experience of wearing the socks less pleasant.
I also asked a Muji employee who remembered the old socks to help me find the closest match. We decided on the right angle pile short socks. These have a mix of 78% cotton, 21% polyester, 1% Spandex. They're not bad (I'm wearing some right now) but like the All In Motion socks, they're noticeably thicker (thus warmer) than the old socks and—I feel ridiculous typing this but details are important here—the elastic at the top of the sock is a little pinchy.
The quest continues. I've got plenty of socks right now so I'm not looking to buy more, but I'll update this post if I find something better.
Fri Dec 03 2021 21:54 November Film Roundup:
- Harischandra Factory (2009): A light dramedy about the origin of India's film industry and the making of the country's first feature film. It's one of those situations where the question of "first" depends heavily on the WHERE clause of your SQL statement. Official government credit (and first choice of the dramedy biopics) goes to Dhundiraj Phalke rather than Ramchandra Torne because... Torne sent his film overseas to have it developed? If you did that now, would your film cease to be an Indian film? Torne's film wasn't long enough? What does it mean for a film from 1912 to be a "feature", given the different context for film showings? I'm skeptical.
Anyway, this was pretty entertaining and we both got strong "Sumana's dad" vibes from the main character. Bonus: Phalke was inspired by an Alice Guy-Blaché film! Probably this one.
- Zoolander (2001): One of those comedies that leaves it all on the field, with mixed results. You'll be enjoying the ride and be abruptly jarred out of the experience by something horribly offensive, like blackface or Donald Trump. The research I did for Bamboozled indicates that Zoolander was the last mainstream Hollywood movie to do first-order blackface gags (as opposed to meta-jokes about how blackface is offensive, which had a brief vogue around 2008). There are two different blackface gags in here, and they're relatively tame, the end of an era, like those final Roman emperors who can't consolidate power and get overthrown three months later.
This film spawned a couple of memes ("a center for ants" always makes me laugh) but I agree with Sumana that there's a lot of meme material in here that never got mined because it came out right at the beginning of meme culture. It's also interesting that Zoolander came out of a series of skits done for a VH1 award show. Reminded me of how Ted Lasso started as a skit done for a sports promo. Are promos the secret low-stakes breeding ground for comedy? Seems like it fills a similar conceptual niche to the SNL skit.
- Love Hard (2021): Was kind of expecting an Edgar Wright thing given the concept of this Netflix holiday rom-com, and the director has obviously seen Edgar Wright movies, but the material's just not in the screenplay. I'm just going to have to wait for my "Hot Fuzz of rom-coms..." or write the script myself.
It was fun overall, and Sumana and I both loved the centerpiece of this film: a very funny filk of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" that turns the problematic standard into a consent-fest. ("Say, what's in this drink?" / "It's just lemon LaCroix.")
- Baywatch (2017): In this tragedy, a public safety organization gradually takes on more and more of the characteristics of the city's dysfunctional police, culminating in an extrajudicial execution. Funny and deliberately stupid. An interminable dick joke early on effectively conveys "this is a hard R, but not the kind you were hoping for with a Baywatch movie."
I would have made the villains a gang of dolphins who synthesize flakka in their underwater lair, Breaking Bad style. Just an idea for the sequel... or an unrelated movie.
- Catch Me if you Can (2002): Editing this in as I forgot to review it initially, but I don't have much to say about this. A fun period piece with lots of heisty details. It kept me entertained for 140 minutes, a rare quality of movies that shouldn't be underestimated.
- The Mummy (1999): High cheese factor, and Brendan Fraser is likeable enough, but it felt like an expensive MST3K film and the plot beats were more predictable than usual. On the bright side: film debut of Oded Fehr, who I first met as Admiral Vance on Star Trek: Discovery. Probably the most competent Starfleet admiral we didn't first see at a lower rank. (Update: forgot about Admiral Ross! He was quite competent.)
British Your Eyes Only (1981): The festival of "Leonard acquiesces to watching a Bond film" continues with this down-to-earth entry. I liked the ski chalet in On Her Majesty's Secret Service and enjoyed its return with an Olympic-fever twist. I'd love to see this tradition keep going: maybe the next Bond film can have a set piece in Salt Lake City or Lake Placid.
Kind of funny that the filmmakers went all-in on full-frontal caricatures of Margaret Thatcher and her husband, but were too afraid of a lawsuit to show Blofeld's face.
(1) Tue Nov 23 2021 12:17 Mandatory Arbitration:
I'm writing about this a little late, but it's never too late for good science fiction! My SF legal thriller "Mandatory Arbitration" was published in the July/August 2021 issue of Analog—my first sale to a print magazine! The text is not online, but you can hear me read the story on the Analog podcast.
I have relentfully made fun of Analog in this blog over the past 15 years, but one thing I really like about the magazine is its tendency to publish clever humorous SF. My main regret is that Analog doesn't do those super-generic story blurbs anymore, so "Mandatory Arbitration" didn't get one. No problem, I'll just reuse an old blurb, let's see here. Yes, the blurb from Carl Frederick's "The Long Way Around" in 2010 will do nicely: "The ways a tool was designed to be used are not the only ways it can be used...." It seems the same is true of blurbs!
Now's also a good time to mention that I've sold a second story featuring Ravy Uvana, the space-bureaucrat heroine of "Mandatory Arbitration". I hope/assume "Stress Response" will appear in print next year. The character's really fun and I keep coming back to her. I've got a formula set up, sort of like Columbo. In fact, if I ever write an out-and-out Ravy Uvana murder mystery, it'll be from the murderer's POV and structured like a Columbo episode. That's a non-binding promise!
Thu Nov 04 2021 20:53 October Film Roundup:
- The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981): An entertaining
directorial debut from Joel Schumacher. Lily Tomlin is always fun, and
the over-the-top consumer satire here prefigures
Robocop. Tomlin plays a dual role—double the Tomlin,
double the fun!—and also has a cameo as an obnoxious telephone operator. I have since learned that this was
one of her Laugh-In characters, which has merely solidified my
desire to never watch Laugh-In or learn anything about it.
As for Charles Grodin's performance, I'll say that he's never
funnier than when he's playing deep in love with a woman one-fifth his
size. Which brings us to...
- The Great Muppet Caper (1981): I don't think this one holds up
very well. I don't hate it; it has my favorite Muppet celebrity cameo
(a bizarrely uncredited Peter Falk), and the Nicky/Miss Piggy romance
really is transgressive. The secret for human actors in Muppet movies
is to commit 1000%, and Grodin gives at least 1002%. But it's
disjointed (IMDB trivia says it's two screenplays stitched together)
and big sections suffer from the Muppet curse of "too many humans, not
The famous bicycle scene is really technically impressive, but
looking back on it, how much do I care about
technical accomplishment in a Muppet movie? It's not packed with gags, and it doesn't advance character or plot. When I write a scene with someone on a bicycle it's
because that person really needs to go somewhere, on a bicycle. And I
don't even have a real bicycle! I'm using nothing but words! But you
don't see me showing off.
- We started watching His Girl Friday (1940) but Cary Grant's
character is such a jerk we stopped after about ten minutes. I'm
pretty sure we did this exact same thing back around 2007, so I'm
making a note of it here to avoid a future repeat.
- For The Love of It (1980): A bad title for a bad TV movie
that was more or less fun to watch. We subscribed to Paramount+ for a
month to watch season 2 of Lower Decks (good stuff BTW, but
once again the back half of the season is way better than the front
half). This made it to the top of our movie list based on the very
interesting streaming service description, which I won't reprint here
because it's a) a huge spoiler for the ending, and b) incredibly
inaccurate when applied to the movie as a whole.
That's the kind of slapdash approach to filmmaking you're in for
here. We were scratching our heads the whole time. The screenwriter
wrote a lot of Batman 66, and it shows: there's Batman 66 fight
scenes, Batman 66 chases, Batman 66 villains, and Batman 66 gags. Star
Jeff Conway would go on to play Zack on Babylon 5, the kind of security officer who gets tricked by Kermit the Frog,
a man so guileless that when my memory goes, the last thing to leave
the Babylon 5 wing will be the riff I did of Garibaldi shaking
his head and saying "I need a smarter henchman."
I can't say this movie wasn't fun—it was very fun—but
there's a thousand better ways to spend your time even if you just
want to watch a stupid comedy.
- College (1927): Now here's a stupid comedy that's old, and
therefore highbrow. There's a Pre-Code dirty joke in a
title card, there's some good Buster Keaton gags, and where would we
be without the traditional blackface scene? We'd be in a movie I could
halfheartedly recommend, is where we'd be. As it is... just wait for
it to enter the public domain. It'll only be a few years, and then you
can have a good time watching just the last 20 minutes of this
66-minute movie. For a real challenge, just watch the last 45 seconds,
because this thing goes to warp speed at the end!
Tue Oct 05 2021 20:35 September Film Roundup:
Just one film this month, so I'll shake things up by starting with the Television Spotlight. Sumana started watching the first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and when the second season turned out to take place at a 1960s Catskills summer resort, I was interested enough to tag along. Something about that old-timey #resortlife appeals to me in a way that makes it obvious I've never actually experienced anything similar, because I'd probably get bored in fifteen minutes. I enjoyed watching a few hours of it, though.
Season three got a little incoherent with pieces being yanked back and forth across the board, but the character of Susie kept me coming back. My sister's name is Susie and there aren't a lot of Susies in media these days, and it was good to see some Susie representation. I don't think my sister would approve of Susie Myerson, but I don't think much of Leonard from The Big Bang Theory, so whatevs.
And now, our feature presentation:
- To Be Or Not To Be (1942): Great screwball comedy that's got some extremely rough chuckles. There are two different gags where a suicide is played for laughs, and I must admit, one of them is hilarious. Not verbally clever enough to be a Wilder, but definitely up there, and has the same sweet-and-sour "marriage is a bourgeois farce but love is real" feel as The Apartment or Avanti!.
Thu Sep 02 2021 22:12 August Film Roundup:
Sumana was unavailable for a lot of this month, so I spent a lot of time watching films she doesn't want to watch. Yes, we're "going stag" to this month's Film Roundup. Lots of violence and dudes doing dudely things.
- Swades (2004): Seen at Sumana's suggestion, this follow-up from the director of Lagaan (2001) is extremely didactic and not terribly exciting dramatically. Also, less NASA content that we hoped for. It does do a good job of finessing transitions between digetic and nondigetic music (really important in a Bollywood movie).
I saw Lagaan like twenty years ago, so it's not officially in Film Roundup, but definitely catch that one if you haven't seen it. It's... I just realized it's an underdog sports movie. Oh well!
- The Warriors (1980): The opening to this film is really incredible. I was kind of laughing at the sight of all these costumed tough dudes buying subway tokens and filing through the turnstiles, but it's explained later on why they're being extra careful not to be picked up for fare evasion at this moment.
The rest of the film... pretty good, I guess? Very style over substance, like a pre-post-apocalyptic Mad Max. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is the most in-depth film I've seen about running the subway, but this film is really smart about the mechanics of riding the subway.
There's a scene near the end of The Warriors where there's basically a little arcade set up in the middle of a subway station. There's no way something like that would actually exist; there's a pinball machine just sitting there in a 1980 New York subway station with no one keeping an eye on it. It had to be props. But why set up those props? I kept expecting an action scene to break out that would result in the smashing of the props, and there was an action scene shortly thereafter but it was filmed on a sound stage. So, did they just put some props in a subway station to add visual interest to a few shots? Were they going to have an action scene but it was too expensive to film, or it got cut? Was that a real subway-station pinball machine that everyone agreed not to vandalize, out of awe, like the baby in Children of Men? I doubt I'll ever know.
- An American Werewolf in London (1981): I wasn't really into this one but I can see all the pieces working well together and there were a couple really creepy bits. Plus funny-creepy bits like the people David kills sticking around and being really annoyed at him. Also, it was great to see all the period ads in the Tube station. This is what goes on in my head when I watch a movie BTW. "Well, he's a goner. Hey, are those vintage holiday destination ads?"
- Heat (1995): I'm sure there were also complaints about this at the time, but... De Niro and Pacino are in one scene together? C'mon! The worst part is, it's by far the best scene in the movie! The ending doesn't count because they don't have any dialogue or interact at melee range.
From IMDB trivia: "The coffee shop scene sold Robert De Niro on the idea of making the film. He, Al Pacino, and Michael Mann later admitted that they couldn't wait to shoot that one scene." Yeah, no kidding! Just shoot that scene and wrap it, guys. You've had your fun.
Apart from the coffee shop scene and the heartbreaking bit at the end, there was a lot of slogging through this movie for me. I know they put a ton of work into this, but I'd watch something that took an enormous effort to film and think "yeah, if you had a huge shootout with the cops in downtown L.A. it would definitely look like that."
- Sweetie, You Won't Believe It (2020) a.k.a. "Baby, You Won't Believe It" (the title as given in the closing credits), a.k.a. "Zhanym, ty ne poverish". Good to see a raunchy comedy from Kazakhstan that's actually from Kazakhstan. Some good laughs, and in the spirit of international friendship I'll assume there were also some Kazakhstan-specific laughs that didn't translate, but I wasn't wild about this one.
- The Color of Money (1986): What a pleasure, start to finish. Paul Newman is great, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (who I'd never heard of) makes the perfect partner/foil, Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise crazy. Just be glad it's him, not you. A relatively un-violent Martin Scorsese exploration of masculinity, a satisfying and perfectly fair twist that exploits the fact that you are technically watching a sports movie, fancy trick cinematography just for the sake of giving the audience something cool to watch but it's also thematically appropriate... love this film.
I assumed the "Stocker" arcade game was a fictional rebranding of "Super Sprint" or something, but it's real!
- Solaris (2002): I've read the book, I've seen the movie, now... the other movie! This adaptation has a much stronger focus on the internal experience of the Solaris constructs than the 1972 version or (as I recall) the original novel. That was really interesting. And of course the ending was presented using a typical Soderbergh twist that briefly made me wonder if he'd changed the ending. So... a decent film? At the very least I understand why they wanted to do another remake. Good low-budget space station, too.
- Smokey and the Bandit (1977): This is basically a 1970s Fast and Furious movie featuring hot people driving way too fast for no good reason. Very enjoyable, Burt Reynolds and Sally Field really make it fun.
An underappreciated weird aspect of this film is how its country soundtrack periodically brings you up to speed on the (very simple, easy to grasp) plot and characters through the entire movie. Demi Adejuyigbe's parody raps are silly, but at least the conceit is that Will Smith waited for the movie to end before summarizing it. I guess thinking about it from first principles, this is probably a movie people watch while they're drunk and/or high, so it's useful to have an occasional reminder.
I remember multiple times seeing Hal Needham's name in movie credits and thinking "Thank you; this movie really did need a ham." But looking at Needham's IMDB page I don't know what movies these might have been. His stunt work is usually uncredited and I haven't seen any of the other movies he directed. It's a mystery. I swear I've had that exact thought four or five times.
Another name that popped up in the Smokey and the Bandit credits: Michael Mann as a sheriff's deputy. I looked it up and it's a different guy, not the future director of Heat.
- Muppets From Space (1999): Definitely a lesser work from our familiar crew of felt auteurs. On the other hand, this did a great job of distracting my young nephew, last seen by Film Roundupgoers in late 2019 watching Muppet Treasure Island, which was way better than this.
I guess it was fun to see a movie with characters I vaguely remember from Muppets Tonight in the mid-90s? Sort of like going to see a band who staunchly refuse to play their old hits.
This is completely unrelated because I found it researching a hypothesis about this movie that didn't pan out, but there's a page on the Muppet wiki page of pictures of Muppets kissing other Muppets. Be careful! With Muppets, there's a hair's breadth of difference between "kissed by" and "eaten by".
Wed Aug 04 2021 12:03 July Film Roundup:
- Portrait of a '60% Perfect Man' (1980): Billy Wilder
rambles about whatever for an hour, in this weird documentary that's
kind of like a reverse Italianamerican (1974). We heard about
it, wanted to watch it, couldn't find it online, but fortunately it's
on one of the DVDs of the Criterion edition of Ace in the
Hole. Due to the director's technique of just following Wilder
around listening to him talk, this film preserves a core sample of some
lesser-seen portions of 1980s LA. As a kid, I spent time in plenty of
old peoples' houses that felt very similar to Wilder's apartment. And
Wilder's screenwriting office at the studio (I'm assuming MGM) is
truly a land of contrasts: an ugly, windowless room covered in
pegboard, on which Wilder has hung priceless works of art from his
collection. At least they gave him an office.
- Furious 7 (2015): I really should have written the review
immediately after seeing the movie because it's now all mixed up with
the others. How many super-hackers does one franchise need? It was
fun, though; good to see Kirk Russell still getting action roles. I
remember being really proud at recognizing "Azerbaijan" as being
filmed in Colorado based on the geology of the road cuts—Mom
would have been proud, too.
I will mention one thing about this movie that's really special:
after Paul Walker's death during filming, the easy route would have
been to change the script to kill off his character as well. But that
would have been a metafictional violation of the themes of the
series. Instead, they put in a lot of effort and CGI to establish that
Walker's character ends up completely happy and no one's going to
bother him with heist stuff ever again.
- The Fate of the Furious (2017): We're not going into a
theater to see F9, but the other day I was at a subway stop where
someone had ripped down layers and layers of ads, I saw an old ad for
this film and it felt fresh. Anyway, we're in flat-out James Bond
territory now, a third super-hacker is in the mix, and
there's no going back. Missiles, submarines, aeroplanes... it's a duck
This film does have the coolest action scene in the series so far,
and one of the coolest action scenes I've ever seen, period: the
"zombie cars" sequence, which implements a huge amount of vehicular
mayhem with minimal injury to human beings. Thanks, evil super-hacker!
- Spotlight (2015): We're now getting historical recreation films from my adult lifetime. What does this mean for my already precarious mental state? Answer: it's fine. I was originally going to skip out this one due to the heavy subject matter, but it's an effective story of low-tech data journalism. Especially good at dramatizing how learning the full extent of a problem can make it seem like the problem itself is growing out of control. But it was always that bad!
- Trees Lounge (1996): It's the Buscemi-ist! Watched without
Sumana, whose opinion of Steve Buscemi I just realized I don't
actually know. (Sumana: "I guess my opinion is he is a good actor.")
This was all right—pretty typical 90s indie film about losers,
but just watching Buscemi be pathetic/creepy "warms" my heart.
(2) Sun Jul 04 2021 21:00 June Film Roundup:
It's been a heist-filled month, and not just because of our continuing
leef-peeping drive through the Fast & Furious series. Why, just
look behind you—I've stolen your priceless Blue Period Picasso!
- Bob le Flambeur (1955): Minute by minute I didn't have the
best time watching this movie, but that's mainly because of all the
Hamlet cliches. AFAICT Bob le Flambeur invents both the French
New Wave and the modern casino heist movie. On top of that, it's got
an amazing twist ending that you'd only see in a casino heist
movie with a French New Wave sensibility. I respect the movie as a whole, but no Hamlet cliches in that ending; it feels
totally fresh even after 55 years of casino heist movies. Reading up
on the movie afterwards, the twist has been used a couple times since,
but not nearly as often as building the team, practicing on a copy of
the safe, etc.
This film has a lot of low-budget tells I recognize from MST3K
movies. I'm no snob but I do not enjoy a shot of someone at a desk
having a phone conversation in an apparently unfurnished room. Film
pros seem to count this in Bob le Flambeur's favor for reasons
that IMO boil down to "give Jean-Pierre Melville a break, filmmaking
is hard." But I'm gonna double down: although Bob le Flambeur
is a really good movie it would also work well on MST3K. Maybe the
RiffTrax folks should branch out a bit.
- Le Circle Rouge (1970): Melville has a much bigger budget
here than for Bob le Flambeur, and he avoids the MST3K tells,
but this is more on the level of popcorn noir for me. A dialogue-free
jewelry store heist? We've all seen Rififi (1955), my
friend. Melville claims he originally wrote this heist in 1950, which
gets him my sympathies, but that and five francs will buy you a pack of
- A New York Christmas Wedding (2020): After restoring the
Film Roundup Screening Room to its former glory we found this on our
Netflix list, probably from some late-2020 Happiest
Season-inspired list of queer Christmas romance movies. It's fine
as far as it goes, and gives you a view into what people who live in
Manhattan secretly think of Queens. But the fantastic element, which
combines religion, alternate universes, and time travel,
nerd-sniped us to the point where all I can think about is simpler
ways of telling the story.
Gotta share our best riff, as an angel gives a sappy speech:
L: What is this 'Live, Laugh, Love' crap?
S: He read that on a Celestial Seasonings tea bag. You know, they just call it 'Seasonings'.
- Fast and Furious (2009): The film so forgettable... I forgot about it when I originally wrote this Film Roundup! Probably not fair given that we were watching one of these very similar films every day, rather than treating the series as a reason to go to the mooovies every couple of years. But even now, having refreshed my memory after looking at the Wikipedia page, I don't really have anything to say about this movie except, this is the one with the minecart level.
- Fast Five (2011): OK, now we're heistin'. The Rock finally
shows up to play the likeable antivillain to Vin Diesel's likeable
antihero. It's like a 007 movie where Blofeld is also really
The downside of the series finally moving from "we drive cars way
too fast" to "we steal huge amounts of money" is the introduction of
firearms and massive body counts. Sumana really dislikes this and I'm
not a huge fan either. I tried to mollify her by pointing out that in
the Fast & The Furious universe it seems impossible to die in a
car crash, per se. Someone has to shoot you or the car has to explode
afterwards. This helped a bit.
Continuing the fine tradition of "crime pals or gay couple?", this
movie hints really strongly that Leo and Santos are a couple, but the
fan wiki says they're just Kashi Good Friends cereal. What is
this, the 1960s?
- Fast & Furious 6 (2013): The escalation of the stakes and
the increasing brutality of the PG-13 violence finally surpass the
limit of my personal suspension of disbelief. A couple movies earlier
I predicted the crew would drive a car out of a cargo plane, and it
happens here but not in the cool way I imagined. Sung Kang is always fun, though, and he's on the F9 poster so I assume they eventually pull a comic-book retcon on Han Lue's death. I'm super comfortable saying this because the same thing just happened in this movie.
(2) Fri Jun 04 2021 20:13 May Film Roundup:
- The Mitchells vs The Machines (2021): Fun family animated comedy, good gags and character comedy, not much else to say. I really enjoyed the (rot13 spoilers) Sheol nowhere.
- The Fast and the Furious (2001): "Welcome to Race Wars; sorry about the name." This was all right, but it was basically the same as Point Break, only the stunts were less cool. Pretty sure they even reused one of the locations from Point Break. So they knew what they were doing. Vin Diesel's antihero is very likeable, really carries the film. And, I'm assuming, the whole series.
- 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003): Okay, I guess we're doing this. This one was awful. Paul Walker's character is so boring, and this movie lacks even the excitement created by the act-two discovery that he's an undercover cop. The torture scene is the kind of thing other movies have to cut to get their PG-13. Antibonus: no Vin Diesel at all.
- The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006): The first film in the series that I would say is "good". The cinematography is solid, the plot is all right, the race scenes are legible, and drifting is a totally different thing you can do with a car, so it's not just people driving real fast. Even the title is a reference to a classic Japanese film. Sumana's a big fan of Better Luck Tomorrow (2002) and was super excited to learn that Han Lue in this film is the same Han Lue from Better Luck Tomorrow.
Wikipedia says "The series transitioned towards heists and spying with Fast & Furious (2009)." So I guess we've passed through the crucible and the good stuff is coming up next. I thought it would all be heists and spying, and this whole time I've been squinting at the movies and thinking "I guess ambushing and robbing a semi truck is a kind of heist..."
According to IMDB trivia, this 2006 film takes place in 2013! That's quite a jump for something that's not mentioned in-universe, but it does give Han Lue plenty of time to transition from whatever shady stuff he was doing in Better Luck Tomorrow (I haven't seen it). Also makes it a bit more plausible that people standing on a mountain are able to wirelessly transmit streaming video to each others' flip phones... maybe through an ad hoc peer-to-peer network?
BTW, what was the first American film to show an emoji onscreen? Good luck answering that question with our primitive search engine technology! It probably wasn't this film. IMDB keyword search shows nothing earlier than 2014, but c'mon.
Mon May 03 2021 23:00 April Film Roundup: '80s Month: The Revenge:
The TV is still busted, but in April we triumphantly made it through the 1980s thanks to the Film Roundup Auxilliary Portable Screening Room
(my laptop). Technology comes through again!
- Thunder Force (2021): '80s Month started out in a state of
interruption thanks to this Netflix original that, I assume, missed
its theatrical chance thanks to the pandemic. Superhero origin stories
are very 21st-century, but this is a "wacky science" story, so at
least it has an '80s heart. And an '80s soundtrack.
Everyone's game for the comedy, Jason Bateman is delightfully
typecast, and there were a couple of real funny scenes, so it's far
from the worst movie we saw in April. It's a huge idiot plot,
though. I literally realized a huge problem while opening the fridge,
and from that point on enjoyed the movie less.
- Hanky Panky (1982): This was the worst movie we saw
in April. Best thing I can say about Hanky Panky is, we see
some classic slices-of-life due to Sidney Poitier's insistence on
location shoots for scenes that could easily have been done on the
backlot. There's a New York coffee shop called "Disco Donut"!
Otherwise, this feels like a movie destined for heavy Comedy
Central rotation in the '90s: three good slapstick gags, comedians who aren't
super funny on their own and have no chemistry together, reliance on
action-y set pieces, and an overall rejection of both jokes and
character comedy in favor of a vague morass I call "lighthearted
- Trading Places (1983): An excellent film all around except for an
ill-conceived, monumentally lowbrow section on a
train; a section which can easily be cut for television because it has
no effect on the otherwise superb plot. You can draw a straight line
between the pre-train scene and the post-train scene, predict its
existence without seeing it, and be better off.
Apart from that, really funny overall. Nobody does "smart but not
as smart as he thinks he is" like Dan Aykroyd. I also enjoyed
imagining the Duke brothers as being played by Statler and Waldorf.
- Footloose (1984): We were expecting a superficial feel-good
film, especially as scenery-chewing John Lithgow was revealed as the villain, but it's
actually pretty subtle. Lithgow's performance has some depth, he's by far the
best actor in the film and his character garners some sympathy.
The soundtrack for this movie is something else, I tell you. "Let's
Hear It for the Boy" and "Holding Out for a Hero" were both originally
released on the Footloose soundtrack.
- The Color Purple (1985): A well-done rural
drama, generally depressing but with moments of triumph at the most Speilbergian moments. Whoopi Goldberg in particular is great in this.
I was expecting a good dose of horror in The Color Purple, but I didn't expect the most
horrifying thing in the film to be the clueless comic-relief white
lady. She's a tonal mismatch with the rest of the movie, and Spielberg
admits he was out of his depth directing this thing, but I tell you,
Sumana and I were on the edge of our seats like Miss Millie was the
Jurassic Park T-Rex.
- Ruthless People (1986): The prize of '80s Month! A tightly
written, extremely fun character-driven comedy. A little convoluted
but not too hard to follow. And—this one's just for
Leonard—packed chock full of outrageous '80s L.A. design, with its
bright-colored triangles and impractical furniture shapes.
- Outrageous Fortune (1987): This is basically the good
version of Hanky Panky. The main characters are really fun,
with great dialogue, neurotic in different ways. (Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner were effectively playing gender-swapped versions of each other.) But it's got Hanky Panky's overreliance on action scenes and even the same road-trip from NYC to the Southwest (was
there a tax credit?). I greatly preferred the first part of the film
where the main characters were just being obnoxious to each other.
- Coming to America (1988): A fun, wholesome rom-com of the
type I do not associate with Eddie Murphy's comedy style, but it
works. John Amos is particularly funny as the uptight entrpreneurial
dad; is it too much to hope that in the 2021 sequel he's revealed to
have a Gus Fring side? Recommended.
According to IMDB trivia, "According to John Landis, it was his
idea to have Eddie Murphy wear make-up to play a Jewish man, as a sort
of payback for Jewish comedians wearing blackface in the early 1900s."
Yeah, the early 1900s, how time flies, it's been five whole
years since John Landis directed a scene between Eddie Murphy and
a corked-up Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places. I guess this was
his way of apologizing, and this was far from the worst thing Landis
has done while making a movie (look it up; I won't mention the name of
a crime because he was acquitted, but even without the criminal aspect he was responsible for a workplace where people died).
- Batman (1989): It had to be this to close out the decade; the film that all the boys in my grade were obsessed with for months and I never saw because who drives to Bakersfield and sees movies? Not my family, apparently.
Hard to believe that at the time this was
the "dark" version. With Nolan for comparison this is a bunch of goofy
Tim Burton stuff, effectively a gritty reboot of Pee-Wee's Big
Adventure. Burton doesn't spend too much time in the ball pit and the result
is a fun movie overall. There are a couple characters who are
superfluous to the screenplay, but judging from the voluminous IMDB
trivia this thing was undergoing serious rewrites as it was being
shot, so you'll get loose ends.
Jack Nicholson's a great Joker—by far the best thing about
this movie—but/and his Joker laugh is this Jack Lemmon-esque
bark which distracted me with a million-dollar realization: Jack
Lemmon would have been incredible as an interim Joker in the
1970s. Throw in Walter Matthau as a dad-joke Riddler and you've got
good stuff, hypothetically speaking.
I watched a bit of Cesar Romero's Joker while writing this review, and
learned about a proto-Harley Quinn named Queenie. The Joker's
also got a proto-Harley moll in this movie, though she's one of those superfluous characters I mentioned earlier and has little to do. It's incredible how close to the surface Harley Quinn was for so long without taking a coherent form.
Finally, from my perspective in 2021 I really loved how this movie
doesn't really care about Batman's origins. It assumes you already
know about Batman. After all... he's Batman. If you somehow went in to
this film not knowing that Batman and Bruce Wayne were the same guy,
there's no "reveal", just an inexplicable scene 3/4 of the way through
where Michael Keaton's in the Batcave for some reason.
Thu Apr 01 2021 17:24 March Film Roundup: '80s Mo......nth?:
The promised '80s Month came to a crashing halt almost immediately when the Film Roundup Screening Room (our television) stopped working. I guess this means the golden age of blockbusters continues!
- Private Benjamin (1980): One of those unassuming gems that hides in cinema history waiting to pounce on people doing these constrained watching exercises. This is a series of comedy sketches that combine to form a plot that ranges far and wide, extending both before and after the boot-camp sequence we were expecting.
I never heard of Private Benjamin before '80s Month, but it was a deserved hit and started a mini-fad. Turns out that Stripes (1981) is a Private Benjamin copycat: what if men joined the Army? Between this and Nine To Five I feel like 1980 was the high water mark of a Women's Lib trend in women-led comedies that receded until the 2010s.
- Loophole (1981): The only big 1981 film that appealed was Time Bandits, which I couldn't find as a rental. So we rolled the dice on a British heist movie, and those usually reliable dice came up "rather" and "disappointing".
It's always fun when a square with professional qualifications (here Martin Sheen as an architect) gets roped into a heist, but this is ultimately a feature-length dramatization of the "one chalk mark" joke. And the "loophole" isn't a loophole at all.
Sumana zeroed in on the potential: Loophole feels like a war movie, showing the camaraderie of men from different backgrounds isolated from their families, looking out for each other and working towards a common goal. In addition, there is a very exciting climax which would be the ideal place for a double-cross or heist-within-the-heist, maybe employing (just spitballing here) an actual loophole in something. But we just cut away from the climax and the film ended after a short denouement.
In a final indignity, the subtitles for the version we watched were generated by a neural net that had been trained on American TV news. It was not remotely up to the task and gave the impression that 1980s British criminals had words like "Obama" and "podcast" in their vocabulary.
(1) Tue Mar 02 2021 22:40 February Film Roundup: '90s Month!:
After we saw Speed in January, Sumana discovered that she really liked being able to talk to people our age about movies that the other person might have seen or heard about. We decided that over the course of February, we would watch some big films from the 1990s, one for each year of the decade. These are movies that don't often get programmed nowadays, and we chose ones I hadn't seen back when they were in theaters, since Sumana's more interested in rewatching films than I am.
Preparing for this project was a ton of fun, and we now have a pretty big list of interesting-sounding '90s films for future Roundups. In the end, "big" usually meant "big box office", but for a couple of the years we made a decision based on lasting cultural impact or cult status. I didn't want to watch a bunch of Disney animated features, folks.
- Total Recall (1990): All-time great PKD plot gets a second half that feels like an unused arc from Babylon 5's crummy final season. I would forgive a great deal if it were possible to read the back half as an implanted memory of Verhoevanian excess, and there's even internal evidence for this, but the screenplay must have got muddled in development hell because that explanation doesn't wash. Basically, there are scenes from POVs other than Quaid's; what could that possibly mean? Who's having those experiences?
- Point Break (1991): Over-the-top fun, from the ridiculous/beautiful action sequences to the goofy/sinister character development.
- Sister Act (1992): Fun family comedy with a little action, in the vein of the older Disney comedies we'd rent when I was a kid. The Apple Dumpling Gang and whatnot. I loved the chase scenes through the casino, possibly because "being in a room full of people whose hobby is making bad decisions; also there's a buffet" seems impossibly far away right now.
- Sleepless In Seattle (1993): Meg Ryan's character is a huge stalker, but when you live in a rom-com universe, stalking can be a positive-sum activity! A big feature of these universes is love at first sight, and when Annie hears Sam's voice on the radio she gets clocked by love-at-first-sight. But due to the structure of mass media, Sam doesn't know that Annie exists! The rest of the movie is basically Annie trying to close the love-at-first-sight circuit by making Sam look at her. And it almost works! But it takes a child's faith and pre-9/11 security practices to finally get them both in shot for more than a couple seconds.
Around 2006 in the Sleepless In Seattle universe, a dating website was created that showed you hundreds of pictures a minute to trigger the love-at-first-sight reaction. Once they had identified one side of a match, it was simple to complete the pairing. This website rapidly cleared the market for romance, ensuring that everyone got their Happily Ever After.
Anyway, Sumana and I suspect that a big part of this movie's success was the way it showed technology's ability to mediate romance over long distances. That's old news now, but at various points in Sleepless in Seattle, animation is used to dramatize the physical distance between Seattle and Baltimore in a way that really jumps out now. Why spend that money on animation, and why pick two American cities that are about as far apart as you can get, if that isn't super important to your film?
- The Shawshank Redemption (1994): Of all the films in this list this is the one I really didn't want to watch. It seemed long and monotonous. But if "big" is going to mean anything, it has to include the single highest-rated movie on IMDB.
Anyway, it was fine, and great fun in the final act. It's probably no surprise to anyone that Stephen King occasionally reuses plot points, but I thought I'd casually mention that the core twist of this movie has a lot in common with the twist in The Eyes of the Dragon, King's 1984 foray into high fantasy.
- Friday (1995): This film has a lot of really funny supporting characters (our fave: Bernie Mac's pastor) but it also has two main characters who don't do much. IMO it takes the concept of "audience stand-in" too far to have your main characters sit in the driveway watching the other characters. Maybe I just don't like stoner comedies.
- Twister (1996): I definitely don't like disaster movies, so I didn't care for the action set pieces, except for the rescue from the wrecked house, which I'll justify by saying it's more of a suspense set piece. However, in Twister the disaster is small-scale and repeating, so it turns out to be a pretty fun story of the scientists who study the disaster.
There's also a slobs-vs-snobs storyline which I'm pretty sure makes no difference at all to the plot. I believe every story beat would have happened exactly the same way if the "snob" scientists didn't exist. Maybe they were a late addition to the screenplay? Anyway, the real attraction here is the "slob" scientists, whose personalities and research are rendered very realistically.
Among those slobs was a bit character who's one of the big reasons we chose this movie. Sumana saw this movie in theaters and was captivated by a character who she remembered as an Indian woman with short hair—a rare bit of '90s representation.
We identified the doppelganger pretty quickly (see screenshot) and IMDB let us close the books on this investigation. That part is played by Wendle Josepher, who, unlike No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal, is not Indian. (Also, we'd seen her before, in a small part in Intolerable Cruelty.) Still a representational victory for women scientists with short hair. Please note the floppy hat.
- Air Force One (1997): This is good fun, but equating the President's leadership with his ability to personally kick ass creates obvious perverse incentives, especially given how easy the latter is to fake. I don't think it's a coincidence that Donald Trump used the Air Force One soundtrack at campaign rallies. Not blaming Air Force One for this; it's just taking an attitude that already exists and using it as the premise for a diehardlike.
Breakdown: the stuff on the plane was great, the scenes back at the White House were fun, especially the press pool. ("Madame Vice President! Is the President barefoot?" "Does he have a machine gun yet?") Everything else was pretty dull, especially the ticking time bomb with what's-his-face being released from the Shawshank Redemption prison and sloooowly walking out to the yard like the guy going up the steps in Becket (1964). Just gimme a plane and people exiting the plane in unorthodox ways. William H. Macy was a nice surprise.
I will concede that if the American head of government was separate from the head of state, it'd make sense to have the head of state be someone who's really good at kicking ass and doing patriotic stunts.
- Pleasantville (1998): William H. Macy is no surprise at all in this story of human beings who act like Sphex wasps, a dimension so square that a couple dorky '90s kids can casually start a revolution. This was really fun and creative. Really my only issue with Pleasantville is yet another problem that seems to have come out of multiple screenplay revisions: what's up with the Don Knotts character?
I don't think this movie needs a framing device at all—I'd do this story entirely inside Pleasantville as a B-movie apocalypse story. But I can see how that wouldn't pass muster with '90s studio execs. So fine, framing device, Don Knotts, magic remote control, got it.
Now the issue becomes the actions of that character. Over the course of the movie he becomes more and more angry at our real-world heroes and how they're screwing up his perfect bubble universe. In the climax of the movie, David a) permanently "ruins" Pleasantville and b) reenters the real world where Don Knotts can get to him. That was a mistake! Now he's really going to give him what for! Now he's... driving away? He doesn't even seem mad? This movie shifts a major character offstage at what should be his big scene, and we don't care because the story's over and who needs that guy. That is, to me, an indication that the character did not need to be in the film at all.
BTW, big thumbs-up to Joan Allen, who plays an excellent space alien in this film, coming right after her role in Face/Off (1997).
- Notting Hill (1999): In Sleepless In Seattle, the romance took place almost entirely in the woman's head. Now, here's a rom-com fantasy for the guys, in which a famous woman falls in love with a rando. A great supporting cast and fun dialogue makes the premise believablish. I was impressed by how much work they put into the films-within-the-film.
- Mo' Better Blues (1990): After reaching 1999 near the end of the month, we started back in 1990 with the goal of focusing on smaller movies. But we only got one movie into that plan—turns out February's shorter than other months! Mo' Better Blues isn't perfect—if your film's Wikipedia page has a section called "Anti Defamation League controversy" you've got a big problem—but I liked the plot arc, a nice twist on the "tortured genius" storyline with a sweet resolution. Bleek loses the thing he loves most and is able to come to terms with it because he's got friends and family. Sort of Kieślowskian.
I generally like it when a screenwriter/director writes a part for themselves, and I think it's great here. Spike Lee's character is constantly humiliated and beaten up, but gets one moment of awesome: a scene where he has the perfect opportunity to say "Hey, I'm walkin' here!" Truly, a New York dream.
This was a fun experience and in fact we're keeping it going: we've already deemed March to be '80s Month and watched a fun film from 1980. It does look like I've seen most of the big '80s movies that are still remembered by people my age, so this month is likely to be more of a "forgotten gem" thing. Still fun though!
Sat Feb 27 2021 20:01 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2020:
A little late, but I don't want to let the year go by unremarked.
My accomplishments: The big one: I'm still alive and healthy. Second, Situation Normal was published! You may have heard of that.
What you haven't heard, because I'm just mentioning now, is that In 2020 I sold a story to Analog! I've cashed the check and done the copyedit and it's coming out sometime this year. This is my first print magazine sale, and very exciting. The story is "Mandatory Arbitrarion", a legal thriller I wrote in 2019. It's my first published story to feature Ravy Uvana, the space lawyer/circuit judge/general bureaucrat who I think has the potential to be a memorable recurring character.
In 2020 I assembled a NaNoGenMo novel, Brutus and Cassius, at the close of the scene After a rough start I also wrote two non-terrible stories: "Stress Response" and "When There Is Sugar".
Books: I recorded my 2020 reading in a couple of earlier blog posts, so I'll say that the Crummy.com Book of the Year is A Suitable Boy, a book I started a really long time ago and finally finished last year. Highly recommended for those who like big encyclopedic books like Moby-Dick and Infinite Jest.
Leonard's Excursions: n/a
Film: Not a lot to choose from from 2020, given that we spent most of our quarantime with non-live theater and TV; even early in the year, many of our museum visits were films I'd already seen. But I've updated Film Roundup Roundup with the 2020 crop, and I do have some special recommendations:
- Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)
- That Sinking Feeling (1979)
- Remember the Night (1940)
- Dolemite Is My Name (2019)
- The Earings of Madame De... (1953)
Honorable non-film mention to the National Theatre productions of This House and One Man, Two Guvnors.
Games: 2020 was a year when Sumana and I played Switch games together: notably Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Ring Fit Adventure, and the one you didn't expect, Crystal Crisis. Yes, the Capcom arcade classic Puzzle Fighter finally has a clone on modern systems, featuring such well-known gaming characters as... Quote and Curly Brace from Cave Story? A guy who appeared only in Turbografx-16 print ads? I guess the Darkstalkers crew weren't exactly the A-team either.
On the Linux platform, the Crummy.com Game of the Year is Noita, a roguelike that relies on just enough programming logic to be interesting, not so much that it feels like work. Other great games I played this year: Demoncrawl (roguelike Minesweeper), Jupiter Hell a.k.a. DoomRL, Shortest Trip to Earth (not as good as FTL but excellent for those who want more of the same feeling or just want it to be much more complicated), and Spelunky 2.
Podcasts: Generally speaking my podcast time took a big hit when I stopped riding the subway every day. However, as part of a research project tangentially related to the Constellation Games sequel, I went around looking for some podcasts where families play fantasy RPGs together. As it happens there's a very famous, extremely funny podcast where a family plays fantasy RPGs together, but that podcast doesn't feature women or children, two types of people frequently found in families. So, here are some other family RPG podcasts I enjoyed in 2020:
I think that's it for now. I'll see you in 2021! Wait, I just did. I guess I can check that one off my to-do list.
Fri Feb 26 2021 14:03 Pandemic Reading Roundup #2:
As I prepare the Crummy.com Review of Things 2020 I've been looking back at the stack of books I bought off my wishlist and read over the past few months. That's right, it's time for a second edition of Pandemic Reading Roundup. I'm not in a mood for detailed reviews so I'll just recommend my favorites of this batch:
- Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert
- Death Sentences by Kawamata Chiaki
- The Unconquerable World by Jonathan Schell
- The Honor Code by Kwame Anthony Appiah
- The Flu Swatter by Nicholas Dawidoff
I also have an anti-honorable mention: Len Deighton's 1964 spy novel Funeral in Berlin. It occupies a space halfway between Ian Fleming and John le Carré, a space that in retrospect doesn't really need occupation. I mention this not-great book in this post when I let many decent books pass without notice only because there's a reason why my wishlist included two Len Deighton novels. Deighton wrote a really good novel in 1978, SS-GB, an alt-history about the impossibility of selective collaboration with evil, which I read many years ago. Big recommendation for that one. It doesn't seem like his other work is similar, though.
(2) Wed Feb 24 2021 11:18 Twistor!:
During my Situation Normal author commentary I mentioned a book I read as a kid which was a big influence on the worldbuilding of my own novel. Shortly thereafter, chance reunited me with the correct metadata for the book: Twistor, by John Cramer, published 1989. I bought a copy and went through it, looking to nail down the influences.
My original plan was just to skim the book, and the first part is very skimmable; but pretty soon I was reading the book for real, because not only does it get really interesting after the setup is complete, it turns out the influences on my work were not limited to Situation Normal. This isn't too surprising because, looking back, there's a good chance Twistor was the first science fiction for grownups I read. So, big thanks to John Cramer. Here's what I found:
First, I misremembered the goal of the scientists when I wrote my author commentary. They're not trying to create a teleportation device; they're doing Ph.D-level research on a combination of real physics and technobabble. The closest we come to a practical application has to do with a new medium for data storage. This would presumably replace the retro-future "laser disks" we see the characters using. I guess technically CDs are "laser disks"; we should have called them that but I understand why we didn't.
However, I was more or less right about the plot device that comes out of these experiments: a phenomenon that can be exploited to swap matter among the six parallel universes that inhabit the same space as our universe. This phenomenon is at the core of the children-in-peril subplot, a couple of pre-Jurassic Park siblings who are caught up in an improbable case of skip overlap (to use Situation Normal terminology), very similar to what happens in Chapter 8 of Situation Normal. There's a subplot about sighting the stars on the other side of the skip bubble, similar to how the cops in Situation Normal will track you when you skip. Nothing comes of it, though, since in Twistor those are completely different stars that formed in the parallel universe.
That skip-overlap incident also slices off a goon's hand at the wrist; and, in the book's goriest scene, the twistor phenomenon is used to dig a spherical chunk right out of another goon's brain. This is a form of murder that the Seattle police are surprisingly cool with. I get it, I wouldn't want to write about that investigation either. Characters in Situation Normal joke and speculate about injuries from skip overlap, but it doesn't happen onscreen.
As far back as I can remember I've imagined forests of giant trees as being a standard science fiction trope—that's Alien Ring in Constellation Games. But apart from Twistor, all the examples I can think of are a) fantasy and b) a single world-spanning Yggdrasil-like tree, not a forest of trees that are just really big. I suspect I got that idea from this one formative book, whose shadow universe features a forest of very memorable giant trees.
Those giant trees have a scent like cedar. That may be why I named the planet in Situation Normal Cedar Commons, but that's a big stretch IMO. I wouldn't have remembered that detail.
Similarly, there's a fantasy story-within-the-story, analogous to the "Princess Denweld" adventure in Situation Normal, but I didn't remember that from my initial reading, and it's such a common technique that I can't imagine I got it from here; especially since I was consciously parodying a different book when I wrote "Princess Denweld".
A totally random thing I did remember: at one point a character sings a Pynchon-esque song and I remembered music that I made up for that song! I know it's my music because a) there's no record of this song existing outside Twistor and b) when I came up with the music, I dropped a word from the lyrics and got the meter wrong. No influence on anything, but a fun example of all the weird stuff we have buried deep in our memories.
Twistor contains a fair amount of realistic 1980s password-cracking and 1337 skullduggery—man-in-the-middle attacks, false-front BBSes, etc. Most of this skulduggery is carried out on "HyperVAX" systems, and exploits real features of VMS. As a kid I lapped this up—I think it was my first glimpse of the cool things grownups could do with computers. I was way more interested in concepts like email and BBSes—within five years I'd be running my own BBS—than in any of the hax0r stuff.
This is one of those sci-fi books where the climax involves spreading the forbidden knowledge to all and sundry. I agree that's probably the best move in the situation the book sets up, but I can't say I share the narrator's optimism. I feel like the jerk at the wedding saying "I give this planet six months." Anyway, the method by which our heroes spread the forbidden knowledge is... mailing list spam! They evade the watchful eye of the FBI by sending out their preprints through a BITNET distribution list, rather than making an easily-stopped trip to the FedEx store.
In a very useful afterword, Cramer does his own author commentary, separating physics fact from speculation and explaining that the hax0r techniques described are "all known techniques which have been used to penetrate protected computer systems", but that they're all now being defended against and you should not use them for real. That's a little disingenous IMO. Many of these techniques are alive and well today—installing a trojan keylogger on someone's computer to capture their passwords—even though VMS itself is dead.
Finally, I'm going to reproduce the last two paragraphs of the afterword verbatim, because it's a great piece of computer history:
BitNet is an actual worldwide computer network that is already in very active use by the physics community. However, at present it is used primarily for "mail" messages between users and for the transmission of data files and programs. It is not in general use for the transmission of scientific papers and preprints because these usually include a number of figures; for example, line drawings of equipment or data plots. Although CompuServe's GIF standard, Adobe's Post Script, and several others are looming on the horizon, there is presently no universal graphics standard that would permit the routine inclusion of figures in scientific papers, and so they are still distributed by conventional mail.
It is a good bet that this will soon change. The scientific journals published by the American Institute of Physics, e.g., Physical Review, already accept manuscripts submitted on computer media. It is very likely that within a decade physics papers for journal publication complete with drawings and figures will be submitted and preprints of such papers will be routinely circulated by BitNet or its successor. One can only hope that publishers of works of fiction (like the present novel) will also eventually emerge from the nineteenth century and adopt similar technology.
(1) Mon Feb 01 2021 23:46 January Film Roundup:
This month, by popular request (Sumana's pretty popular around here), I'm bringing back my gimmick from July 2013 where I list a fanciful connection between each pair of movies I reviewed this month. Fortunately this month there are only three movies to connect in a web of fun:
- Quartet (2012): A pretty enjoyable dramedy that gives older actors the chance to ham it up. We got two dramatic characters and two funny characters, the plot hits the beats in the order you think it will, it's fine; the pleasure is mostly in enjoying the British Acting.
- Bonus connection to last month's Irma La Douce: Famous singer comes to town.
- Speed (1994): This is really, really fun, and captures the feel of Los Angeles around the time I was living there in college. In fact, here's a story I've apparently never told before: when I was in college I saw a Santa Monica bus like the one in Speed get hit by a car! No one was hurt, everyone got off the bus and started filling out forms. I actually remember being on the bus when it was hit, and filling out a form with a little stub pencil, but I'm not claiming that because it's easy to confabulate that kind of memory. My point is, Speed takes certain liberties with the sturdiness of that kind of bus. One tap and it's down for the count.
The bigger problem with Speed is that the core middle bit, on the bus, is such a perfect action sequence that it's been raptured straight to Movie Heaven. The subplot about the bad guy and the two completely different transportation-based set pieces that flank the bus sequence are Left Behind, looking cheesy and sheepish by comparison. I mean, you've probably seen Speed and it's probably been a while. Do you remember the elevator sequence? No, I'm pretty sure you're thinking of Die Hard. Or maybe Gremlins 2.
Speed is nearly two hours long. Much as I love any time the LA Metro shows up on screen (hello, Captain Marvel), you coulda cut that whole sequence, saved a bunch of money, and packed in two or three more showings per day of a ninety-minute Speed in a busy multiplex.
It would be great if last year's showing of Gravity and this year's Speed acted as bookends on the pandemic, but it ain't happening. I will point out that Sandra Bullock's Speed character, like her Gravity character, spends a lot of time calling for help from people who can't help her. But that's not the movie I came here to find a connection with! How about:
- Connection with Quartet: Tune man.
- The Devil And Miss Jones (1941): A pretty fun film with some good old-timey New York jokes ("I work at the automat. I have charge of blueberry pies.") falls flat at the last possible minute by setting up a scenario where management recognition of a union is the only realistic way to achieve a happy ending and then... skipping right to the happy ending, letting you draw whatever conclusions you want about how the plot got there. Which side are you on? Which side are you on? Oh, definitely on your side, for sure.
This film has no creative connection to the similarly-named porno classic, to the extent that I wonder whether the director of The Devil In Mrs. Jones had heard the title but never seen the film. It seems like the common situation where you mishear something, decide your mishearing is cooler, and do your own thing based on the mishearing.
- Connection with Quartet: Romance blooms among the elderly.
- Connection with Speed: Bad cops.
(1) Tue Jan 26 2021 13:58 Situation Normal Author Commentary #7: What's Next:
Welcome to the end of January, and the final entry in this commentary
series. Before we get into it, I have a request of you. If you've read
and enjoyed Situation Normal, please tell other folks about it,
either by writing a review or just mentioning it when books or science fiction come
up in conversation. If you're eligible for voting in awards like the Hugos, consider it when you place your 2020 votes—it came out late in the year but 2020 is its eligibility year. Constellation Games spread almost entirely
through word of mouth and the same will be true of this book.
Today I'm raising the curtain on three things that, in different
senses, come "after" Situation Normal. I do this this with some
trepidation because at the end I'm going to talk about a project in progress that is exciting but far from complete. But first, something
that's totally done and just waiting for the right moment to spring on
"We, the Unwilling"
"We, the Unwilling" is a bonus story I wrote after finishing the
first draft of Situation Normal. It's a tall tale of an
Outreach Navy grunt who's retrained as a superweapon after his
superiors discover he's apparently immune to Evidence. There was no
way to tell this story in the main plotline, and at some point we'll
be publishing it online to juice sales. Here's a little
The rre doctor ratcheted thons exosuit into a standing
position. Kenta just sat there, unable to move, amazed that... well,
he was going to die, sure, but there was a chance he'd die with his
shameful secret intact.
Kenta was immune to Evidence, but the explanation wasn't
physiological. It was hiding in plain sight. Evidence turned
battle-hardened spacemen into cowards. It didn't work on Kenta Imura
because he was already a coward.
I reused one little plot point from this story in the final draft
of Situation Normal, but it's pretty minor. It's the sort of
thing that probably happens all the time, whenever two people struggle hand-to-hand for control of a spacecraft. Not a big
deal. Anyway, I'm looking forward to showing you the story!
Several years ago, in a fit of excessive optimism, I wrote a short
pitch for a sequel to Situation Normal called Nice
Doggie, a working title which I love but would surely have to
change. Here is the pitch exactly as I wrote it except with spelling
"Diplomacy is the art of saying 'nice doggie' until you can find a rock." - Human saying
Sel has been promoted! As the colonial administrator of Resca, a
Terran system captured during the war, it's her responsibility to
bring ninety million humans into full citizenship in the Fist of
Joy. Not bad for someone whose previous major accomplishment was
running an international trade show. There's bound to be some initial
trouble with some dead-enders, but once the humans get a taste of a
fully functional modern economy, they'll never want to leave the
Jamey Pandit of the Terran Diplomatic Corps is starting to wonder
why he even bothers saving the galaxy. Time after time he's bailed out
his doddering superiors, and his reward is one punishment assignment
after another. This time he's the passport officer at the Terran
consulate on Resca, a planet that shouldn't even have a consulate
because we shouldn't have given it away. Still, even on a backwater
there are plenty of opportunities for advancing humanity's
interests—and making a little money on the side.
Nice Doggie does for interstellar diplomacy
what Situation Normal does for interstellar war. Inspired by
Keith Laumer's Retief stories, it is intended as a sequel
to Situation Normal but it can be told in a different setting
as a standalone story.
You can see the Retief stand-in there, I won't insult your
intelligence. I will say I gasped when I reread this and realized I'd
made Bolupeth Vo's girlfriend one of the POV characters.
Is this likely to happen? Probably not. I'm still searching through
new fictional universes, looking for the one that will hit it
big. Except, that's exactly what I said about a Constellation
Games sequel, and...
The Constellation Speedrun
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, I was about 5,000 words
into a novel about a post-scarcity society that abruptly stops being
post-scarcity. This was shaping up to be one depressing-ass
book. Situation Normal doesn't have a traditional happy
ending, but the war does end and some of the survivors are working
to break the cycle of violence. This was a real end-of-the-world novel,
and with the world actually ending around me, I just couldn't write
So I did what for ten years I'd said I wouldn't do: I went back to
the Constellation universe. Constellation Games wasn't the
commercial success I'd hoped for, but it's become a bit of a cult
classic, and writing in that universe means accepting strict rules
about how bad things can get for humanity. To quote Ariel, "we did
nothing but fuck this up from beginning to end, and it probably
turned out okay." Those rules gave me the guardrails I needed to
face the blank page and write through what I hope will turn out to
have been the worst year of my life. (I'm preemptively disqualifying
the year where I actually die.)
I'm currently 30,000 words into The Constellation
Speedrun. Maybe thirty percent of the way to a rough
draft. It's slow going, and I don't usually talk about incomplete
manuscripts, but this isn't a novel I'm writing for sale. I'm
writing it for myself and for you. I hope I can sell it,
but if I have to I'll self-pub or just put it online for
fans. This novel is my coping mechanism and I will finish it
Any attempt to describe The Constellation Speedrun runs into
the reticence that led me not to tell you about the project in the
first place, so I'll just say that it takes place about ten years
after Constellation Games, starring new characters who were
little kids at the time of first contact, with old favorites like Jenny and Tetsuo
returning in cameos or small parts. I'm trying to capture the same
freewheeling, idea-packed feel of Constellation Games but
with a much tighter plot and in an average word
count for a science fiction novel.
Thus ends the commentary! Again, if you have any questions about Situation Normal feel free to ask, and I hope to see you again soon!