Literacy 2021: Book 14: The Caledonian Gambit

A cold-war sci-fi novel by Dan Moren

The Caledonian Gambit by Dan Moren

In the midst of a galactic cold war, a janitor from a remote outpost on a frozen, secluded planet is enlisted to return to his homeworld to investigate a secret weapon being developed by the oppressive Illyrican Empire.

Moren’s years of experience as a tech journalist are evident here, as the craft of writing throughout is smart and accessible. Embraces most of the elements of the capital-ships-and-dogfights-in-outer-space school of current popular science fiction, but puts most of its focus on cold war-style espionage. Having a planet that’s a colony of Earth founded by Scotsmen is a novel twist I haven’t seen before. Pretty well paced, with a balance of fight scenes, dialogue, and espionage that all builds towards a climax that bumps up the scope without losing focus. It’s evident that the world-building has been mapped out beforehand, and we’re only seeing a piece of a larger story. Sensitive to its main character and treats PTSD as an obstacle instead of a weakness. Feels very much like a years-long passion project, and I’m just happy to see someone have his dream of having a novel published come true.

Feels very much like a first novel. Relies far too heavily on cliches, from settings to events to dialogue to character backgrounds to character descriptions and even character mannerisms. Dialogue isn’t very strong and often feels forced or stilted; one of the main characters’ constant “wisecracks” are particularly grating. Emotional moments often don’t feel earned, or the “heat” of a scene suddenly escalates for no other reason than to generate drama, and it sometimes feels as if it would’ve felt more resonant had there been simply more action. One of the main characters’ key relationships, that’s built up throughout the book, is left jarringly unresolved, as a death happens “off screen.”

Feels like a novelization of the pilot episode of an obscure series on the SyFy channel. Which I imagine was the goal.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Groovies

If ever this country needed Cartoon Network to be cool again, that time is now

If I were to tell you that there’s a piece of music that’s running on a constant loop in the background of my brain, it’d be reasonable to assume that it’s the Innoventions Area loop from Epcot, or the theme from Space: 1999, or even Pump Up the Jam.

And those do frequently take over my capacity for thought for weeks at a time. But the one tune that lies, Cthulu-like, in the depths of my subconscious, waiting for its time to strike, is That Time Is Now by Michael Kohler. It was broadcast as a commercial bumper in the golden age of Cartoon Network, when all of us nerds of a certain age were so happy that a bunch of hipsters had gotten control of the Hanna Barbera and Warner Brothers libraries.

That remix of the Superfriends theme is what I heard in my head as a child, all the power and bombast and excitement of a show that simply didn’t warrant such cool music or Ted Knight voice-overs.

There were a ton of other impossibly cool ones, and it’s hard to pick a second favorite. The collage video warning that Atom Ant was the only thing saving us from nuclear annihilation? The impossible board game with Jonny Quest? The one that takes Josie and the Pussycats through various stages of music from the 60s to the early 2000s? I mean, their Betty Boop video for “Rolling” by Soul Coughing is what made me love the band.

But I think the one that made me feel like there was infinite potential for creative people to remix and re-imagine was Jabberjaw Running Underwater, with a song by the band Pain and a video re-imagining the Neptunes as hipsters on a lunchbox.

Another Thing I Love About Black Widow

More thoughts about Black Widow, and how clever it was to pit Natasha against the Taskmaster.

It’s a little frustrating to see so many reviewers dismissing Black Widow as being too overloaded with Marvel Cinematic Universe action to have any depth — or worse, dismissing the entire MCU as commerce — because it’s a sure sign the reviewer is just phoning it in. Some of them seem to be pre-written like celebrity obituaries, making the same predictable complaints with each installment, just copy-and-pasting in a new movie title to maximize search engine optimization.

It’s frustrating because we’ve all got assumptions about how super-hero movies work, but I think Black Widow shows how super-hero movies can work. It is undeniably packed full of over-the-top action sequences that, especially towards the end, strain any notion of believability. But it’s also completely aware that those action sequences are at the core of a super-hero movie. Instead of trying to compartmentalize them away from the “real cinema” of thematic exploration and character development, it’s really clever in how it uses the action to introduce or reinforce the themes.

One of the best examples of that is how it introduces a new incarnation of the villain The Taskmaster to the MCU. In the comics, it’s a character from the 80s who trains other mercenaries, and whose super-power is being able to reproduce a hero’s abilities and fighting style just by watching them. In Black Widow, the character’s super-power is being able to perfectly encapsulate a hero’s character development and personal growth.

To explain why requires lots of spoilers, though, so don’t read this unless you’ve seen Black Widow.

Credit goes to Ryan Arey for his video giving his take on “the real meaning of the movie and her journey in the MCU,” which if I’m being honest, is a little too reductive for me, but does a great job making explicit a lot of aspects of the movie that I appreciated, but couldn’t put into words how and why. Watching that video, and a re-watch of Captain America: The Winter Solider, which I highly recommend to get more out of Black Widow, helped clarify it.

Read More if you’ve already seen the movie

One Thing I Love About Black Widow

I mean, it’s Florence Pugh, 100%. But also, the tone.

I admit I was skeptical about Black Widow, and I’d been assuming that it’d be the first MCU entry (apart from The Incredible Hulk, which has never seemed like it really counted) that I didn’t see in its theatrical release. But the combination of mostly positive reviews, and the chance to see a movie in a theater for the first time in over a year and a half, made me change my mind.

Good call on my part, as it turns out, since the movie is fantastic. I might still be in a post-action-movie high, and I’ll change my mind as time passes, but right now it’s one of my favorite entries in the entire series.

The reason I was skeptical was probably common to anyone who’d pre-judged it based on the trailers: Marvel spectacle inflation. This looked like a spy-themed, entirely Earth-based action movie. The MCU is pretty good at those, but it’s hard to get super-enthused after they’ve had super-powers, aliens, Norse gods, space travel, and wiped out half the population of the universe.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier has been a favorite of mine for the way it integrated a Marvel super-hero movie with the feel of a paranoid 1970s spy thriller, but I still have to admit that it only really picked up for me when they had super-villains embedded in old computers. Natasha is allowed to be an absolute bad-ass in that one, but it still feels as if she’s supporting the super-heroes.

That’s one of the things Black Widow makes fun of, the idea that Natasha is one of the “lesser” Avengers. The character who’s keeping her in her place — which includes mocking her well-known three-point landing as “posing” — is Yelena Belova, played by Florence Pugh in a performance that threatens to steal the whole movie.

She’s sardonic without ever completely giving in to bitterness, tough without seeming invulnerable, irreverent without seeming glib. All with an accent that is probably accurate but still feels like it’s from a cornier spy movie, but still somehow true to the character. She makes it an outstanding hero origin story, because she so thoroughly inhabits a comic book character without letting it veer too far into realism or too far into camp.

That perfect balance of tone is carried throughout the movie. This has some of the darkest material of any of the MCU installments I’ve seen, with ever-present reminders that this is a story about betrayal, paranoia, abandonment, abuse, and human trafficking. But it treats everything with what I think is an appropriate level of gravity, without letting it become completely bleak and somber.

From the trailers, I’d been worried that it would be just another wise-cracking action movie. The scene of Natasha’s family getting back together was highlighted in the trailers as a bit of comic relief at Alexi’s (David Harbour) expense. That turns out to have been a bit of a bait-and-switch, since in the movie, it’s an extremely sinister moment with an extremely sad undertone.

The Breakfast All Day review mentioned one moment that I think illustrates the balance in tone perfectly: in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Natasha explains that she was sterilized as part of the Widow program, in a scene that’s played for maximum emotional impact. In Black Widow, Yelena describes her hysterectomy a lot more bluntly and matter-of-factly. As Alonso Duralde points out, not only is it less about equating a woman’s worth with her capacity to bear children, it’s truer to the characters and the way they would think about what’s been done to them.

It’s also truer to the tone of the movie overall: this is a movie about characters surviving and fighting against the trauma they’ve gone through, not using it to manufacture pathos. It’s tempting to join the dogpile on Joss Whedon for setting up powerful women characters just to put them through torture, especially since WandaVision showed how her character could’ve been handled so much less clumsily. But really, it’s a problem throughout a series that has never been quite sure how to handle characters who aren’t super-powered.

The trailer including that scene at the dinner table, with Alexi stuffing himself into his Red Guardian suit, is also a bait-and-switch because it implies a break in the action. But the action in Black Widow never completely lets up. It’s relentless without being exhausting. People complain about the dominance of the MCU, but one of the advantages is that it can include one of the most exciting car chases I’ve ever seen — which would’ve used up the entire budget of a normal movie — and it’s still just getting started. “I could do this all day.”

Again, that car chase isn’t a shift in tone into action mode. It’s establishing Yelena’s character and her relationship with Natasha. Black Widow manages to do what few action movies can pull off, which is combine character development and plot momentum with action scenes, never at the expense of either. There’s a sense that chase scenes, daring heists, shoot-outs, and exposition-filled mission debriefs are the only way these characters can really communicate with each other.

Early in the movie, Natasha is shown watching Moonraker on a laptop, in a scene that foreshadows the level of spectacle that’s yet to come. It’s a neat inclusion because it establishes Moonraker as fantasy; this movie will soon be hitting (and then exceeding) the scale of that spy adventure, but without all of its camp.

By the time Black Widow reaches its climax, piling spectacle on top of spectacle and stunt on top of stunt, I was a little taken aback. Up to that point, the movie had been smart and thrilling, but relatively grounded compared to the rest of the MCU. But then I remembered: not only is this still the MCU, it’s Natasha’s long-overdue showcase as one of the Avengers. Not just a supporting character. Earlier, Yelena had called her a “super-hero,” but in context, it seemed mocking. By the end, it’s clear that there was no mockery at all. Natasha may not have had super powers, but she was still every bit a super-hero.

Even before the pandemic delayed it over a year, I had been thinking that Black Widow was coming far too late to have any relevance. No matter how much I liked the character, her story was over. While the rest of the universe was mourning Tony Stark and speculating on the fate of Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff had simply closed out her story as a self-sacrificing hero. A prequel would add nothing.

I was mistaken. I said that Florence Pugh “threatens to” steal the movie (along with Rachel Weisz, who was perfectly creepy, and who incidentally seems to also be stealing Paul Rudd’s anti-aging serum), because as much as Black Widow sets up her character to be a great addition to the next phase of the MCU, it’s also a fantastic conclusion for Natasha’s character. It takes near-throwaway bits of her backstory and makes them not just trauma she has to overcome, but a cause to fight for. It calls back to her most standout moments in The Avengers, The Winter Soldier, and Civil War, and shows why she wasn’t just Captain America’s or Nick Fury’s assistant, but a key member of the Avengers, and more than just a poser.

I’m sure future installments will be full of action, drama, intrigue, comedy, magic, spectacle, science fiction, lasers, robots, mad scientists, and anything else that can fit into a comic book movie. But they’ll have a hard time keeping all of it in as perfect balance as Black Widow does.

Literacy 2021, Book 13: The Lathe of Heaven

Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic about an average man whose dreams transform reality

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin

Seemingly average man George Orr is tortured by the knowledge that his dreams alter the past to become reality in the present. He’s sent to an arrogant psychiatrist who wants to use Orr’s power to rebuild the world into a better version.

The language flows smoothly between dream logic, dystopian science fiction, poetry, and Taoist philosophy, treating them all as parts of the same thing. Manages to be stridently moralistic without lapsing into dogma or a naive story of good vs evil. Has the same aspect that I like so much in Susanna Clarke’s writing, in which the protagonists and antagonists aren’t treated as equal and opposite rivals, but instead as operating with completely incompatible viewpoints. Feels surprisingly modern for a 50-year-old science fiction novel. Takes what could’ve been a sprawling and clumsy story about altering the fabric of reality, but keeps it focused on a few characters and dense with observations from their own viewpoints. Descriptions of an “effective dream” gone wrong, from the point of view of people on the outside, are fantastic.

That density makes it kind of a slow read; although it’s less than 200 pages, it took me forever to make it through. As with any story of oppressive dystopian futures, much of it isn’t a fun and breezy read. Because LeGuin is so effective at writing the inner viewpoints of the characters, the dialogue comes across as a bit stilted and unnatural in comparison. The few but significant pop culture references come across as corny.

It’s easy to see why it’s regarded as a classic; it feels timeless and if anything, more relevant now than in 1971. It takes us through an increasingly wild story to show us the power of inner strength, simplicity, kindness, and companionship, without seeming naive or simple.

Friday Night’s All Right For Blending and Shading

Friday link post exploring the baffling world of non-photorealistic shaders

Above is a tutorial by Ocean Quigley on how to make a non-photorealistic shader for Blender that looks like an etching or engraving. I was lucky to work indirectly with Ocean on SimCity 4, and he remains one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met.

Here, he makes the baffling process of shader creation seem not simple, but at least attainable. I definitely can’t claim to understand every step of the process he outlines, but he does do a great job of walking through step by step and explaining why he’s doing each part.

A simpler but interesting effect is explained by Ian Pitkanen, with this video demonstrating how to add a grainy effect to lighting transitions. It’s a nice, subtle effect that makes 3D objects seem less sterile and more like they’ve been printed on paper.

I’m frequently trying to learn how shaders work (and then getting hopelessly confused and giving up). One of the most useful-seeming resources is The Book of Shaders by Patricio Gonzalez Vivo and Jen Lowe, which encourages you to interact with the examples instead of just passively reading. This is a perfect approach, because it’s a reminder that this isn’t magic, but neither does it require a deep understanding of math. It is presumably possible to understand the basics and then experiment until you get what you want.

The reason I’m interested in shaders at the moment is to see if I can use Blender to make art resources for a possible game for an upcoming black-and-white video game device. This article by Braden Eliason on getting that classic Mac dither effect in Blender seems like it’ll be invaluable for that!

Walt Disney World, Part 1: Leaving the Bubble

My recent trip to Walt Disney World changed my idea of what I want out of a vacation

This summer, my fiancé and I went on a ten-day trip to Walt Disney World for my 50th birthday. Because it was such an arbitrarily momentous occasion, I was selfish and splurged in all the ways I’ve never been able to before: two days in each park, a whole day devoted to just hanging out at the hotel, dinners at some of the fanciest restaurants we could get reservations for, and staying at my two favorite hotels for peak nostalgia value.

I’ve spent most of the last year convinced that with everything terrible happening, it was inevitable that something was going to go wrong and make the trip impossible. But somehow, everything came together: we were both able to get vaccinated, our neighbors graciously offered to take care of the cat, we managed to get time off work, my favorite hotels opened up (at least partially), and Disney ran a discount that made the hotels just ridiculously expensive instead of impossibly expensive.

It ended up being a terrific birthday, and about as nice as it can possibly be to spend ten days in central Florida in late June. As great as it was, though, I could feel my perspective subtly shifting while I was down there. This felt like the last time I’ll take a lengthy trip to Disney World. Not just because I’ll never be able to justify the cost again, but because it doesn’t feel like my type of thing anymore.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not actually committing blasphemy by saying I’ll never go again. I already want to see the new stuff that’s going to be opening for the anniversary and in 2022, and onward. I’d love to be able to stay at — I mean take a space cruise on the Star Wars not-a-hotel when it opens. But this felt like checking “dream Disney World vacation” off of a list, and I don’t feel the need to do it again.

It’s not that I’m getting tired of it, either. I got absurdly spoiled on previous jobs where I’d spend weeks at a time at the parks, and it never got old. (Almost. It turns out that two weeks living on theme park food is my limit). Instead, I think I’m just at the point where I want something different out of a vacation.

I can honestly say I’ve never had any hesitation or regrets about spending almost all my vacation time at Disney parks. Complaints that they’re just for kids, and it’s weird for childless adults to go there, are just absurd, and I never even give them a second thought. Same for complaints that it’s all a corporate money-making machine; I mean, welcome to the 21st century.

The only complaint that’s ever gotten any real traction with me is that it’s all manufactured, a fake substitute for “the real thing.” And that pretty much dissolved as soon as I went to Italy, and I realized that Epcot’s version felt more realistic than actual Venice and parts of Rome. I’m skeptical that the people so dismissive of Disney are actually going on exotic adventure treks, or living like a native in delightful out-of-the-way sections of foreign cities, but even if they are, that’s not me.

I’m not convinced that “travel and live like the locals do” is actually a thing, at least unless you’re lucky enough to have friends who are locals. And even then, I’m not convinced it’s all that great a goal. I live in one of the most beautiful tourist destinations in the United States, and the thought of people paying money to recreate my day-to-day experience is profoundly depressing. They’d have a lot more fun doing the predictable, touristy stuff accessible to everyone: going to Fisherman’s Wharf, taking photos of the Golden Gate from the Marin Headlands, riding a cable car, getting a Mission burrito, desperately searching for a public restroom.

I’ve been lucky to do a fair bit of traveling, and I’ve always ended up in the touristy areas anyway, if only because I’m helplessly monolingual. I don’t even like talking to strangers in English; it was stressful enough being in Ireland, and people constantly greeting me with “Are you okay?” as if I looked like something horrible had happened to me. The idea of actually roughing it — either in terms of residence or social interaction — doesn’t sound like a relaxing vacation in the slightest.

So I’ve realized that I’ve spent years thinking about Disney parks — especially Walt Disney World, with its emphasis on all the resorts and stuff to do “inside the bubble” — in the wrong way. I’ve thought of them as taking a real-world travel adventure and making it safer, more compact, and more generically family-friendly. But now, I realize that it’s actually taking a family-friendly vacation and trying to inject a little bit of real-world adventure into it. It really doesn’t matter at all that it’s not an authentic experience; all it needs to do is give you something to look at and do that’s more interesting than just sitting by a hotel pool.

And I can’t speak for anybody else, but now that I’m firmly in my middle age, the idea of sitting by a hotel pool is more attractive than it’s ever been. My travel goals for the future are seeking out the most comfortable hotel pools in the most exotic places.

Next up: my report card for the trip.

Zero Entropy Is Our Goal

I’d never call myself a hero, but of course I can’t stop any of you from calling me that….

There’s a special streaming on Netflix that has been getting a lot of praise and recommendations to watch it. I finally watched it over the weekend, and I didn’t like it at all.

I spent some time last night and today writing a post explaining exactly why I didn’t like it, and the more I thought about it, the more I hated it. Still, I detailed my criticisms in a way that I think was fair, somewhat insightful, and always tried to meet the material at its own level. And I took care to explain why my dislike of it was relevant outside of just a TV show.

Then I just deleted the whole thing and wrote this post instead. Because honestly, why waste so much time chewing on something I don’t like? If other people like it, then it did its job, no matter what I think.

While I’m waiting for my medal to arrive, I did want to include a briefer take on the more relevant issue: what to do when someone you love (or yourself) is struggling with anxiety and depression.

There’s a really toxic idea that’s been going around for several years, repeated and embellished with each repetition to the point that whatever original good intention has been lost. It says that if someone is having a depressive episode, we should treat them as if we would a cartoon sleepwalker: never interfere! It says that our role is just to listen, never to offer help, or compare their experiences to our own.

I think it’s bullshit, and I hate it. Of course there are ways to take it too far, to make it too much about yourself, to come across as too judgmental, or to inadvertently minimize or trivialize what they’re going through. But the alternative isn’t just to do nothing. Someone who wants you just to listen to their misery without comment doesn’t want a friend or a partner, they just want a witness. No matter what narcissistic simpletons on social media might suggest. Besides, we’ve got enough to deal with, having to remember the fifteen billion rules suggested by self-proclaimed “introverts” detailing how they expect to be treated.

We need more genuine connections to each other, not fewer.

Mine Train Through Nature’s Bafflingly Sexist Wonderland

Disneyland’s Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland closed in 1977 (according to Wikipedia), and by the first time I went to the park, its replacement Big Thunder Mountain Railroad had already become a 20-year-old classic. So I never saw the original ride, but knew just enough about it to be able to recognize references to it.

For instance, one of the best Mickey Mouse shorts, Nature’s Wonderland, is full of references to the entire history of the ride, from the Rainbow Caverns to Big Thunder Mountain, and even Disneyland itself. I’ve seen this one several times, and patted myself on the back for catching the references, but I never knew how much was being referenced.

Fortunately, someone on YouTube compiled a full ride-through of the Nature’s Wonderland attraction, combining a recording of the original voiceover with restored film and photos from various sources at the appropriate points. It’s fascinating to see the whole thing put together after years of seeing and hearing about specific scenes and saying, “Yeah, I get it.” Some things I never realized:

  • How long and meandering it was. Everything was a lot more leisurely back in the early days of Disneyland, before concerns about capacity ruled everything.
  • It puts the Calico Mine Train at Knott’s into better context, which has seemed to be this weird outlier among any other theme park ride I’ve seen.
  • I never appreciated just how much Big Thunder Mountain Railroad calls back to Nature’s Wonderland, from Rainbow Ridge and the rainbow caverns, to the dinosaur bones at the end.
  • I never appreciated how bafflingly, unnecessarily sexist the original voice-over was.

It’s almost comical how often the narration veers off into “ahhh, women, am I right, fellas?” for no reason. I’m guessing this was part of the good-natured comedy that was injected to keep the rides at Disneyland from being too dry, as they were in their original incarnations. Regardless, it’s kind of a stark reminder of how much the parks have evolved over the years.

It seems especially relevant now, since Disney has changed the opening of its fireworks shows from the traditional “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls…” to a more generalized and inclusive one. As usual, people are complaining about political correctness, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the parks have been updated to be more inclusive to guests for decades. And they haven’t lost their classic charm, either.

Complaints from self-proclaimed “traditionalists” depend on the erroneous idea that things have always been a certain way, and it’s modern special interests trying to ruin everything to fit their own special agendas. What they ignore or deny is that the “traditional” versions were a special interest imposing their own special agenda on everyone — it’s not as if everyone in 1960 was delighted to hear needless misogyny (no matter how seemingly gentle) on a theme park ride. It’s a safe bet that a lot of Disneyland visitors found it grating, but not enough to make a big deal out of it or anything.

Remember that the next time you see some chucklewit complaining about encroaching wokeness. Take a step back and realize how changes made for the purposes of inclusivity have been happening forever.

One Thing I Like About Werewolves Within

Werewolves Within is based on a social deduction game and wins on its casting and its ambition

The promotions for Werewolves Within keep comparing it to Knives Out, and let’s be honest, that’s an extremely generous comparison. It’s absolutely not a bad movie, and it’s got a lot of clever ideas. Plus it has an assertiveness that’s nice to see — it clearly knows what messages it wants to deliver — and is especially rare in any adaptation, video game or otherwise. But I spent most of it with the feeling that its reach exceeded its grasp, and it was ultimately carried by some great casting.

I really like Milana Vayntrub (I’m mostly a fan from @midnight), which isn’t all that surprising, since being intensely charming and like-able is kind of her whole thing. That like-ability is used perfectly in a movie like this.

I’m also a fan of Michaela Watkins, who’s appropriately over-the-top; and Harvey Guillén, who’s disappointingly over-the-top. I appreciate his not just repeating the understated Guillermo from What We Do In The Shadows (which is the only other thing I’ve seen him in), but he and Cheyenne Jackson play a shrieking, stereotypically bitchy and self-obsessed gay couple that’s not really offensive so much as completely uninspired. The rest of the cast seems like they’re doing everything they can with the material they’ve been given. Sometimes it works.

But the standout is Sam Richardson as Finn Wheeler. This is the first thing I’ve seen him in — and remembered, anyway; apparently he was in Drunk History and the 2016 Ghostbusters — and he’s great in it. He starts the movie as a guy who’s just too nice for his own good, which is a character flaw that goes off in a direction I didn’t expect. His character is the core of the movie not just because he’s the protagonist, but because his character development is key to what the movie’s trying to say.

Considering that this was a movie loosely based on a VR social deduction game loosely based on a party card game, the fact that it was trying to say anything at all was appreciated. From what little I know of the game, the movie isn’t a direct adaptation, because that would’ve been a mistake. Instead, it goes for the fun suspicion and paranoia that makes a social deduction game.

I’d been hoping that this might capture the feel of The Beast Must Die, which is in retrospect a social deduction movie and which I love beyond any rational measure. Werewolves Within didn’t manage that, and it didn’t even seem that that was what it was going for. It was more than anything going for comedy, and so much of what makes mystery stories, horror stories, or werewolf stories was only obliquely hinted at if mentioned at all. (For horror cowards like myself: it’s really not scary or gory, and I think all of the R rating was for language).

Instead, you just get to spend an hour and a half with some good actors and a frequently clever script. You could do a lot worse!