Book Review 2011: Embassytown

Avice Benner Cho thought she was off and away from the strange, distant colony of Embassytown forever. After a difficult upbringing, she became an immerser, directing ships from planet to planet. Her home started to become a memory.
But then, in the company of a husband eager to see it, she returns to her home planet, and the titular city of her birth, in time to witness, participate and influence a true revolution of ideas–a revolution in the language of an entire species.
Such is the Matter of Embassytown, the latest novel from China Mieville. An ambitious novel, Mieville plays hard and long with the idea of language and the how it influences thinking, and vice versa. His invented species the Hosts, the Ariekei, have a peculiar language. It is spoken with two mouths, is not understood by the Ariekei unless spoken by living beings, and is not generally understood or accepted unless it tells something true.
In order to get themselves understood by the Hosts, pairs of human clones are raised together to the point their thoughts harmonize, and they are as physically identical as possible. These pairs, then, can be understood by the Ariekei. We meet several Ambassadors, and we see what happens when a single one of a pair is lost.
The plot of the novel kicks into high gear when Bremen, the planet responsible for the Embassytown colony sends something novel–EzRa, a pair of non-identical twins that, nonetheless, can harmonize their thoughts and speech patterns so that they can be understood by the Ariekei. This paradoxical pair, however, proves to be something that the Ariekei at first are delighted by, and then, finally, given how language and reality are bound together, start to destroy the foundations of their language, and the Ariekei themselves.
There is much more idea-gathering in the novel. Avice, in her youth, became a simile, a living part of the Ariekei language in a way that reminded me of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Darmok. Upon returning to the planet, she meets others who are in the same unique position, living ideas in the Ariekei language. The city is a living city, with its biotechnology a slightly underexplored aspect until that technology starts to fail in the wake of EzRa.
You might notice I have left something out in this spread of ideas and plot: heart. While the ideas are amazing in Embassytown, and the prose the strong and clear and uncompromising stuff one expects from a Mieville novel, the real weakness in this bounty is the characters. The characters are two-dimensional, at best, never gaining real emotional depth, growth or focus. We never emotionally get a handle on Avice and her husband’s marriage, especially when it stops running smoothly. The characters move without real conviction. Not even our narrator, Avice, gives us real insight into her feelings.
It is a real pity. With more emotional resonance from the characters, this novel could have gone from being extremely good and interesting to something of an even higher order. And reading it, I could feel the sense that Mieville was trying to reach that highest tier. As it stands, this is a strong example of science fiction and should be read by anyone interested in science fiction today, but it doesn’t quite reach its ambitions.

Nigerian Scam Spam goes Meta

I thought that this piece of spam, which has a Meta-spam sort of feel to it, was relatively interesting…
Subject: Please Read!!!
Date: Fri, 27 May 2011 12:42:37 +0800
From: Tom Smith
Reply-To:
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Hello,
My name is Tom Smith, I am a 48 year old US citizen, I reside here in
New York. My residential address is as follows 10. West 246th Street New
York, NY 10471. I am one of those that took part in the Compensation to
Nigeria many years ago and they refused to pay me, I had paid over
$50,000 trying to get my payment all to no avail.
So I decided to travel to Washington D.C with all of my compensation
documents, and I was directed by the FBI Director to contact Special
Agent kelvin williams, who is a Special Agent of the FBI that leads the
Compensation Department, working with the Nigerian Government. I
contacted him and he explained everything to me. He said whoever is
contacting us through email are frauds.
He directed me to the Claims Department for my capitalized payment.
Right now I am the happiest man on earth because I have received my
compensation funds of $1 Million US Dollars.
Special Agent kelvin williams, showed me the full information of some
others that are yet to receive their payments and I saw your name as one
of the beneficiaries, and your email address, This is why I decided to
email you to stop dealing with those people as they are not in
possession of your funds, and they are only making money off you. I will
advise you to contact Special Agent kelvin williams.
You have to contact him directly on this information below.
(FBI Claims Department)
Name: Special Agent kelvin williams
Email: kelvinwilliams09@mail.kz
You really have to stop dealing with these people that are contacting
you and telling you that your funds are with them, it is not in anyway
with them, they are only taking advantage of you and they will dry you
up until you have nothing.
The only money I paid after I met Special Agent kelvin williams was just
$390 for the paper works, take note of that. Once again stop contacting
those people, I will advise you to contact Special Agent kelvin williams
so that he can help you to deliver your fund instead of dealing with
those liars that will be turning you around asking for different kind of
money to complete your transaction.
N.B you are strongly advised to contact him with your direct telephone
number for further confirmation and directives.
Tom Smith
10. West 246th Street
New York, NY 10471

Ficlet: Gone

Gone
5 am. May 22, Time to make the donuts. The clock radio alarm woke Doug up to quiet static.
Doug frowned as consciousness won out over sleep. Instead of the dulcet tones of the local public radio morning hostess, there was just static, like an old television tuned to a dead channel.
Doug looked at the time, and decided he could deal with the radio tuning later.
Twenty five minutes later, after morning ablutions, Doug picked at a whole wheat bran muffin that did not taste as good as it looked. And it looked like something that an unloved pet might find in their food bowl. The white noise sound of the static of the radio still filled the tiny studio apartment.
Doug walked over and started to fiddle with the dial. Nothing. Static. Not even the annoying prog rock station whose signal sometimes overawed the small public radio station’s broadcast had anything. The conglomerate modern music station had some sort of test sound, a high pitched whine.
“Stupid radio” Doug cursed under his breath. He resented the money it would take to replace it.
Doug padded over to his computer. A few emails from last night, but nothing that required his immediate attention or his reply. Work email could wait until he was in the office, anyway.
When he logged onto some social networks, he noticed that no one seemed about. Sure, few people followed him or cared about what he was doing, but he could usually see what other people were doing. If he was reading this right, there had been no activity from any of them since last night. Not even the Inkheart writer group in Europe, which usually had a lively debate going on Twitter. All silent.
A trip to some news sites, even the BBC, revealed that no stories had been updated since last night. No timestamps beyond 11:38 PM. It was as if the Internet stopped after that time.
“My fucking cable connection, too?’ Doug growled aloud and slammed the heel of his hand against the computer desk. He regretted the outburst. Old Mrs. Atwood woke up early and had preternatural hearing. More than once she had complained to the apartment manager about Doug’s television being too loud. By too loud meaning above the sound of a whisper in a thunderstorm.
Silence. Nothing. Perhaps she was fast asleep, for once. Maybe she had spiked her Geritol.
Rebooting the computer, and the connection, did not change matters. Doug glowered at the computer screen. Besides, Doug thought, he was late for work.
It took about six blocks for Doug to realize something was seriously wrong. A gas station on fire, with a Hummer crashed into one of the pumps was strange enough. It was doubly strange that there was no one seeing to the fire or even watching it. The lights were on in the twenty four hour convenience store. Regretting that he didn’t have a cell phone, Doug carefully parked away from the fire, and trotted to the convenience store.
The store was empty of people. Doug headed to the counter. Something possessed him to look over the counter. There was a pile of clothes in the center of the space, but nothing else. Quizzical, Doug eased himself over the counter and picked up the phone. Three attempts to call 9-1-1 resulted in nothing more than an answering service. Calling the police department directly proved equally fruitless.
Outside, the fire in the gas pump burned in the morning light.
Doug racked his brain as he got in his car, but finally memory sent him down DeNardo road, toward the nearest fire station. The car radio was as useless as the radio in his apartment. He could not find a working station.
There were a few abandoned cars in the grass lined ditch on the right side of the road. Doug slowed and stopped by one of the cars. The car was still on, running fruitlessly, headlights and taillights on. There was a pile of clothes in the driver’s seat, and shoes in the footwell. Key still in the ignition, Doug leaned over and turned the car off. It sputtered to a stop.
Doug continued on his journey. The fire station shared space with Clifton Landing’s police station, and, as Doug was growing to expect, both were quiet as a tomb. There were a few piles of clothes and shoes here and there, in random places. Doug lifted a set of keys and explored the fire station and police station.
Even in the drunk tank, there were two sets of clothes without owners.
Doug went to the administrative section of the police station and fired up a computer. Clucking his tongue with the lack of any security whatsoever, he quickly was able to get onto the Internet. A thought had been creeping in his mind for the last hour.
A little Googling did the trick. There, there it was. Reverend “Pappy” Todd Brandt. He had loudly predicted the Rapture would come 7:39 AM, Jerusalem time, May 22, 2011. The computer translated that to 11:39 PM local time, last night. Pappy had said only the worthy and the saved would be bodily transported to heaven, leaving all others to misery for the end of their days on a dying Earth.
Dumbfounded, Doug wandered out of the police and fire station, into the street. The sound of a sonic boom led him to look up at the sky. Instead of the early morning light, the sky was now the crimson color of fruit punch, and a diagonal line of clouds were black, forming a gash across that unnaturally colored sky.
Doug shook his head and moaned. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t. It just couldn’t.
Everyone he knew and met, apparently, and for all he knew everyone in the world had been Raptured.
Everyone, except him.
Doug sank to his knees in the street, looked up at the hellfire skies, and wept, alone.

Picture of the Day: Triceratops

Triceratops by Jvstin
Triceratops, a photo by Jvstin on Flickr.

I’ve mentioned before in this space that there are only four complete Triceratops skeletons in museums: At the American Museum of Natural History, at the Smithsonian, at the Milwaukee Museum, and this one. Except for the Milwaukee one, I’ve seen them all. As it turns out, this is the largest of the quartet.

Gumshoe and the Internet

GUMSHOE, and the Internet
Jerry Pournelle, a few decades ago, mentioned that by the year 2000, it would be possible to find out just about anything one wanted to know, with the rise of electronic media and information. He was pretty much on target with that, although I don’t think you can say he predicted the form that would take–the Internet.
This point came to light to me in a Play by Email game turn in my newest game, Return of the Titans. The game is set in the modern day, April 2011. Thus, the player characters have all of the advantages
One of the player characters, having received a mysterious invitation, immediately went to Google to try and figure out more about it. It’s trivial today to google something and get some information. The further you go back in time, the more difficult such research would have been.
And then I started thinking about Gumshoe. Gumshoe is a system created by Pelgrane Press and is used in a number of their games:
http://www.pelgranepress.com/site/?page_id=672
Using a “point spend” system, the GUMSHOE rules revolutionize investigative scenarios, by ensuring that players are never deprived of the clues they need to move the story forward.
What does one have to do with the other? Think about it. In a modern game, unless you really run a railroad, player characters are in a modern age with the Internet. General information gathering is now a *given*, just like it is in the GUMSHOE system. It might take time and effort (read: Point spend) to find esoteric and really obscure stuff, but the technology of the Internet is a powerful lever for clues.
If you remember the heyday of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”, after a while, people would phone a friend only to have them quickly google a potential answer. I understand that the latest rules of the game actually incorporate an internet search engine into the game.
Thus, my point is, for an investigative game set in the modern day, there is something to be said for using a point buy system a la Gumshoe than having players stumble around because of a failed roll.

My first foray into Kurdish Cuisine

After I went to the Science Museum on Saturday (as part of a work sponsored event), I then decided to branch out yet again, cuisine wise.
This time I went to a small family restaurant in St. Paul called Babani’s.
The cuisine they serve…Kurdish.
Babani’s claims to be the first Kurdish restaurant in the United States. I don’t know the truth of that claim, but it was certainly the first time I’d ever heard of a restaurant specializing in Kurdish cuisine. Turkish, Iranian, Syrian, and even Iraqi, yes. Kurdish, no.
What I had, for my first foray was, as described in the menu:
“2- Kubey Sawar – Crushed wheat made into a dough and
filled with lean ground beef, spices, and onion then
sauteed in olive oil. This dish was first made famous
in Nineveh – Modern day Mosul, Iraq.
I had a choice of soup or salad. I chose soup:
Dowjic – Chicken, yogurt, rice basil and lemon juice. This
soup’s tangy bite has traditionally kept many a Kurdish
traveler from wondering too far from home.
The food wasn’t extraordinary, and not too different than other middle eastern cuisine I’ve had, although I admit the soup was a tangy, sour surprise. I wanted more of that when I was done! The Kubey Sawar’s weren’t spectacular, but they were certainly tasty enough.
Its not in a location that encourages me to visit often, but anyone who is already in downtown St. Paul might want to try it in order to get a taste of a cuisine not really well known on these shores.

The ladder scale of Superheroes: Thor, a movie review

There is a power scale to superheroes and the threats that they face. Different superheroes have different levels of abilities, and thus the opponents they usually tangle with vary in scope and ability as well. Daredevil, for instance, usually takes on criminals and other low-powered types. Iron Man and the X-Men team much more formidable dangers. And generally these rules, with some variation, remains in place. You generally don’t see Cyclops going after muggers, and Kato and the Green Hornet, in the DC universe, do not go hunting after Darkseid.
Spiderman breaks these rules, as he always does, as comic book writers seem to love to have him punch far above his weight class. Similarly, the Joker, ostensibly not a dangerous threat to the more super powered denizens of the DC Universe, also breaks the rules as being an antagonist that even Superman takes very seriously.
Thor, the superhero featured in the latest movie, is near the top of the scale of ability and power. He’s a certifiable deity, and a major one at that. The power he and his hammer wields are vast and varied. And thus, making a movie with Thor as the protagonist is a challenge. There are two major tacks that comics take when using Thor. Either give him truly cosmic challenges to overcome, challenges that few other superheroes can take on directly, or, depower him, cut him off from his power and abilities and force him to deal with matters without having nearly unlimited strength. The Thor movie uses both approaches to its titular hero.
Thor starts Chris Hemsworth, as the titular Norse God/superhero, as directed by Kenneth Branagh. After a brief opening scene with Natalie Portman’s astrophysicist Jane Foster, who literally runs into Thor, we flash back to find out how Thor wound up on Earth. The scenes in Asgard and Jotunheim, done with the latest CGI are gorgeous, and establish the Shakespearean family dynamic of Odin and his two sons, Thor and Loki. Once Thor is stripped of his power and exiled to Earth for breaking the peace with the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, the story truly starts to get in motion. Mostly.
As I said above, Thor stories usually have him either depowered or facing cosmic threats, and in this movie, we get both. Thor’s time on Earth is nothing more than as a pretty talented mortal, but he is not a world-beater by any stretch of the imagination. The overarching story, as Loki’s villainy develops and his plan comes into focus, IS a cosmic threat, and Thor, when powered up again, IS facing a threat equal to the vast powers he has when at the height of his abilities. In this regard, Thor the movie gets it exactly right.
However, Thor, as a movie, does not rise to the level of the top tier superhero movies for the simple reason that it feels as if it was designed as a clothesline between previous films and new ones. At 2 hours long, the movie is, I think, a bit too short to really get a handle on all the characters. Branagh does try, hard, and it does work for an extent with the family trio listed above. But the rest of the characters do not far anywhere near as well.
It’s a pity, too, because the potential is there. Portman’s Jane Foster seems to be far more capable than most Jane Fosters in the comics (I can think of one who picked up the Hammer herself, but she is an exception). The movie does pass the Bechdel test, by cleverly giving Portman a female assistant (Darcy, played by Kat Dennings). Stellan Skarsgård plays Foster’s academic advisor, and resource for information on Norse mythology. And as for Thor’s quartet of martial friends from Asgard, Sif and the “Warriors Three” of Volstagg, Fandral, and Hogun? We learn very little about them. I amused myself, inspired by a friend of mine, to recast them as characters from a fantasy novel, and thus give them an artificial depth of character not really present in the movie.
There are a few nice touches of humor in the movie here, and there, ranging from Thor learning that smashing cups in a diner is NOT a sign of respect, to the humorous attempts at New Mexico locals to try and pick up (or even move) Thor’s hammer, Mjollnir.
What the movie does very well, for better or worse, is to tie into the shared universe Marvel is trying to build in its films. Some might even say that the entire point of the Thor movie is to continue to string the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” along. The obligatory credit cookie scene at the end of Thor features Skarsgård ‘s character and suggests that there is more to him than meets the eye, but it is little more than a teaser and a revelation of who the villain of the Avengers might be. There are also appearances by Hawkeye and most notably, Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. Wikipedia actually has a webpage to keep all of this straight: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marvel_Cinematic_Universe
As entertainment, despite its weaknesses, the movie entertains and there are worse ways to spend $10 and 2 hours of your time. I saw the movie in 2-D myself, and can’t imagine, personally, it being worth any extra money to see it in 3-D. Branagh’s direction, and a story co-created by J. Michael Straczynski don’t rise above the bar of mere entertainment though, as I had hoped they would.
While Thor the comic book superhero, God of Thunder, is in the top bracket of superheroes, this movie, unfortunately, is not. I wish it was, I really do. It’s not Iron Man or the Dark Knight, instead Thor is a second-tier superhero movie, serviceable, but nothing more.