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Review: LOTR The Rings of Power: Stuff That Works and Doesn’t

As with yesterday, there will be spoilers in this entry. Whole great big bleeding buckets full of them. Spoilers never bothered me much, but if they bother you, stop reading now and come back after you’ve seen the whole series.

All jokes aside, I’ll give you the bottom line up front: I liked this series. Quite a bit, in fact, in spite of a little too much pointless dialog and a few howlers. Some things were just wrong, like Galadriel stating that her husband Celeborn had already died in some war. Celeborn was in LOTR, and in fact Galadriel bailed from Middle Earth before Celeborn did, if he bailed at all. Tyler’s The Complete Tolkien Companion (highly recommended) says Celeborn lived into the Fourth Age, and there is no indication that he ever went back to Valinor. I’m sure there were a few other counterfactuals that I just missed. If I missed them, they weren’t serious enough to bother with.

So let me move on to things that I thought worked. First and foremost are the sets and the settings. Egad, I thought Peter Jackson’s films had a lock on this, and in some instances he still does, like the Khazad Dum interiors. Amazon’s Khazad Dum is less grand. All the wide-open spaces are the mines. Living and meeting quarters are smaller, almost comfy. But the cityscapes are breathtaking. So are the sailing ships. And you can’t beat New Zealand for rugged landscapes.

Celebrimbor, the master smith of the Elves, was brilliantly cast in Charles Edwards. He has the face of an Elf Lord to begin with, and he acted like a guy who Makes Important Things. His workshop was a very nice piece of architecture. Also, the process of crafting the Three Rings in that workshop was excellently shown.

Lenny Hendry as Sadoc, the top Harfoot, is terrific. Lloyd Owen is a very good Elendil, both in appearance and in action. Sophia Nomvete as Princess Disa is the only Dwarf woman we spend any significant time with. People are bitching that she didn’t have a beard. Sheesh, guys, not everybody likes beards. And she has a warmth that one doesn’t generally expect from the Dwarves.

And then there’s Adar, a brand-new invention of the showrunners. Adar is one of the Elves captured by Morgoth in the First Age and turned to the dark side. The orcs of the southlands call him “Father,” and that is in fact what the name “Adar” means in Elvish. Adar was born an elf, but bears all the marks of living thousands of years torn between two natures: elf and orc. He wants to protect his orc children from war and sunlight. He hates and claims to have killed Sauron (untrue), though that might have been a lie to keep Galadriel off his case.

The actor playing Adar, Joseph Mawle, presents possibly the most skilled performance in the whole series. Adar is sad, but more than that, he is weary, weary of fending off attempts on his life while he tries to care for his orcs. His craggy, scarred face projects that weariness in every scene where he appears. He takes no pleasure in anything. His defiance is quiet, and sometimes seems desperate. He is eventually captured and imprisoned, though I’m guessing he will have a significant role to play in future episodes.

Reviewers have rolled their eyes at the rock-cracking contest between Prince Durin and Elrond. I think they missed the point: This is a grin-inducing joke on the Dwarves, who consider themselves the masters of iron, stone and mountains. Well, Elrond, who one might think couldn’t even lift the hammer, swings it hard and cracks the rocks with alacrity. When he stops, I almost think he was throwing the contest to Durin as not to embarrass him in front of his underlings in the audience. Given Elrond’s character as shown up to that point, it’s precisely the sort of thing that the good-natured (to the point of goofiness) Elrond would do.

One thing that didn’t work well was the guessing game Amazon was playing with viewers, putting several contenders in front of them and daring them to guess which one was Sauron. I guessed Adar, though in truth none of the choices seemed likely to me. And I was wrong. Adar is Adar, which is a good thing, as I’m eager to see how he will relate to the southlands’ new boss next season. The answer to the puzzle, Halbrand, made me groan. The most I would grant him is a sort of bad-boy girl magnet type who looks a little too much like Viggo Mortensen, who played Aragorn in the Peter Jackson films.

But maybe that was the point. Like his former boss, Sauron is pure evil, but he’s still a king. He didn’t use the power that a major Maia could conceivably summon. Maybe that’s because he was in hiding. And he rescues Galadriel from drowning. That was a lot harder to figure. Once he establishes himself in the brand-new Mordor, I suspect the facade will fall away, and he’ll look like the nastioso that he is and has always been.

Galadriel? She needs to chill a little, or she’s going to pop an artery. The serene power projected from Cate Blanchett in the LOTR films simply isn’t there. Again, I think this is a fault of the scripting. Morfydd Clark didn’t seem as melted into her role as some others in the series, especially Joseph Mawle. Some of her dialog is too too utterly utter. Her acting wasn’t bad. I think the showrunners’ vision of Galadriel was just lightyears away from mine. That’s fair.

The pace is slow. I would have enjoyed a few more action scenes, and maybe a few more minutes to gape at the fantasy world that Amazon’s billion bux created. It is what it is. My recommendation is positive: Watch it. Enjoy the ride. Don’t pick nits; there are nits allthehell over the place, and if you go off on them too hard it’s you who are likely to pop an artery.

Cautiuously recommended.

Review: LOTR The Rings of Power: Silliness

Yesterday was all overview. Today we get into things that most people would consider spoilers. So if you’re of the cohort that can’t abide spoilers, leave now.

Here and there during the 9+ hours of the first season of The Rings of Power, I rolled my eyes. Every so often, I giggled. I doubt that this is what Amazon intended. I’m a hard man to please on the fiction side. I considered The Silmarillion a waste of time and money. I’d already been to college, and had read quite enough Cliff Notes, thank you very much. I wanted another story.

The Rings of Power is certainly a story. Several stories, in fact, and I enjoyed most of them. I was very interested to see what Amazon could do, given how little they had to work with about the Second Age. We got Ar-Pharazon the Golden; will we get the sinking of Atalante? (Yes. That’s what Tolkien called the Lost Continent underneath Numenor. Really.) Well, they made a lot of it up. What would you do, with a sparse outline of events and a billion bux to blow? You’d make most of it up too.

They did. Some of what they made up was better than expected. And some…I giggled.

First up: The Three Witches Or Something Very Like Them. Here and there in the saga there were these three women dressed in spotless cream-white capes, wandering around the wild country asking every third person they met if they were Sauron. This is silly enough on the surface. But really: Where were the grass stains? Where were their backpacks? Did they camp somewhere, somehow, or just get a room at the Southlands Best Western?

One was a soldier, with a helmet. She threw knives, and nailed one of my favorite characters. Another was a preacher, with her hair under cover, who carried a saucer sled and said a lot of pompous things that didn’t amount to much. But the third…Eru help us…she was another damn deranged albino. I was already tired of deranged albinos in 2008. (There is a whole Wikipedia entry about deranged albinos.) I guessed that she was the boss, carrying around a very Egyptian-looking magical staff and levitating rocks with it. Alas, she eventually picked a fight with the wrong man (also not Sauron) who grabbed her staff and roasted the three of them real good.

The Harfoots (proto-hobbits) were sweet and sane, and only occasionally silly. I liked Sadoc the Harfoot tribal chieftan, who was well-cast and acted the part brilliantly. He defied The Three Witches Or Something Very Like Them and got a knife in the heart for his trouble. So what was silly? Just this: As best I could tell, their primary source of protein was…snails. Raw. Sometimes shells and all. Ye valar, everybody knows that snails carry a veritable arsenal of parasites, many of which can send you off to that far green country beneath a swift sunrise with barely a burp. The Harfoots haul their whole village around in tumbrel carts. A few dozen chickens in cages wouldn’t weigh that much and could work wonders for their diets.

Ok. Here we get to the more significant stuff. Elrond, one of the Elf-lords who eventually got to wear one of the Three Elf Rings of Power, is a cuddly, huggy, back-slapping round-faced good ‘ol boy who looked like he could do standup and keep the audience in stitches. Ok, this was the Second Age. He still had a few thousand years to develop Hugo Weaving’s gravitas–but probably wouldn’t. The actor did his best with what they gave him. But the casting and the scripting were all wrong.

And now, the biggie: Early in the series, a human teen kid named Theo discovers a weird artifact in his unpleasant neighbor’s barn. It looks like the hilt of a sword minus the blade. It gives him the serious galloping creeps, so being a teen, the only thing he could think of doing is to wrap it up in rags and take it home. It comes out of hiding here and there, with Theo’s blacksmith friend finding that hammers can’t do a thing to it. Shifty-eyed people want it, and eventually get it, without having to kill Theo in the process, whew. I was thinking it was some kind of immaterial magic sword, which would have been way cool, like an Iron Age lightsaber. But no–here there be belly-laugh spoilers–the damned thing is the ignition key for Mount Doom.

Really. And literally. I am not making this up. The shifty-eyed neighbor takes the gizmo, shoves it down into some kind of keyhole, and gives it a twist, just like a car key, if any of you remember what car keys were. Alluva sudden, in an undisclosed location that clearly wasn’t anywhere nearby, hidden machinery opened up a very big dam and sent a megacrapgallon torrent of water roaring toward the dormant volcano. The water goes down into the cracks, meets some lava, and (presumably) boils. Then, boom! Old Orodruin (AKA Mount Doom) suddenly erupts like Krakatoa cubed, and turns the Southlands into…wait for it…naw, you already figured it out…Mordor.

I did not know that you could make a dormant volcano erupt (rather than merely explode) by giving it a good thorough soaking. I was really into volcanoes when I was a kid, and that never came up in any of the books I read about them.

I didn’t giggle. I laughed out loud.

Here and there I also groaned, but those groans were few and far between. (I hope you figured out by now that I’m not being entirely serious about all this.)

To avoid leaving you with the wrong impression, tomorrow let’s talk instead about what works and how well.

Review: LOTR The Rings of Power: Overview

Carol was gone for a week, so after I burned out on updating my assembly language book during the days, I had empty evenings. My path was obvious: Pour myself a drink or two, and binge on the first season (now complete) of Amazon’s Tolkien pastiche, The Rings of Power. I’ve seen various estimates of how much money Amazon is spending on the project, which is projected to release eight episodes a year for five years. Whether it’s 750 million or a billion, that is very serious money.

As best I can tell, Amazon bought rights to The Lord of the Rings…appendices. They pointedly did not license The Silmarillion, which I’ve heard was a rule laid down by the great man himself and respected by his estate. My guess? He really didn’t want The Silmarillion turned into a story.

The Silmarillion is not a story. In a way, it’s the Cliff Notes to a bunch of stories that JRR never wrote. But in truth, it’s a history. It’s like viewing a story on satellite video from Middle Earth orbit: We get to see all the people and the monsters running around killing each other, a continent and a half sunk to the ocean bottom, and much else. But we get inside no one’s head to experience their insights or their sufferings. It’s all Who Did What To Whom (Or What) But Not Why, which set the stage for the extremely rich cultural background behind The Lord of the Rings saga itself. (I consider The Hobbit part of that saga.)

We have Amazon Prime. The series is part of Prime, and thus without marginal cost. Why not? I’d already paid my money. I took my choice.

So what did I get? Here’s quick list:

  • Some of the most beautiful scenery and backdrops I’ve ever seen in cinema, greater than what Peter Jackson managed twenty-odd years ago, and his weren’t shabby.
  • A great deal of interpolation and (mostly) studied invention of a lot of original characters and conflicts. Some of this was very good; I much enjoyed the Harfoots (basically wandering Iron Age proto-hobbits), particularly Nori and Poppy.
  • A certain amount (probably less than you might have read elsewhere) of silliness, none of which we can lay directly at the feet of JRR. I’ll come back to this.
  • Mostly excellent acting, and (huzzah!) no celebrities.
  • A slow, often clumsy, dialog-heavy screenplay, which at times bore more than a whiff of an Iron Age Days of Our Lives. When you have 560 minutes to fill, well, dialog is cheap. Alas, as dialog goes, it wasn’t thin gruel, but gruel so thick it was occasionally impossible to swallow.
  • Wholesale butchery of the Tolkien timeline. This may have been necessary, given the scraps Amazon was able to license versus what true Tolkien fans were sure to expect. The Dwarves didn’t strike balrog until Third Age 1980, but Durin the Somethingeth almost got the booby prize thousands of years earlier, in the Second Age. Everybody loves balrogs, right? They break the Days of Our Lives boredom, fersure. I’m guessing we’ll be seeing more balroggery in forthcoming seasons, if Amazon doesn’t run out of money first.
  • A puzzle: Which character is actually Sauron? I guessed wrong, but as with a lot else, I’ll come back to that.

This will have to do for today. I have to leave for the airport pretty soon to pick up Carol.

Review: Tangled

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Everybody knows the story: A girl with magical golden hair is kept in a tower by her supposed mother, who somehow climbs up and down the girl’s hair to access the tower. There are a lot of variations, but as with most fairy tales, a clever screenwriter could do a lot with that.

Disney did.

Carol bought me some DVDs for my birthday, including both Cinderella (1950) and Tangled (2010). I’ve always liked cartoon movies, and those were two that we didn’t yet have in the cabinet. We watched Cinderella first. It had been a lot of years since we’d seen it, but I want to say my mother had the VHS tape and I saw it regularly as a young man. The next night, we watched Tangled. We’d seen it in theaters back in 2010, but I wanted to compare how animation had evolved across 60 years.


Not that this was a surprise. Cinderella is good fun, but for the most part it’s a funny animals movie. Neither Cinderella nor the prince have much in the line of personalities. The side characters like her stepmother and stepsisters, the king and his grand duke, and all the chateau’s animals steal the show. I suspect that’s because Cinderella and the prince are supposed to be realistically drawn, whereas the others are caricatures. Realism in animation is hard. Caricatures, by contrast, are a snap.

Which brings us to Tangled. It may not be Disney’s masterpiece (my vote on that score is still for Fantasia) but of all the princess films it’s by far my favorite. It has a warmth that the other princess movies try for but mostly miss. The minor-key masterpiece “Let It Go” from Frozen is a remarkably bitter item if you read the lyrics, and a certain chill permeates the whole story. Even The Little Mermaid, as good as it is, depends heavily on its minor characters like Sebastian the crab and its heavy, Ursula.

With Tangled I think we see (at last) true mastery of CGI animation. Rapunzel’s hair is dazzling. This shouldn’t surprise anyone; her hair is what makes the story happen. Disney, in fact, had to develop rendering software specifically for hair. They nailed it, and Rapunzel’s hair might as well be another side character in the story. (There are many more side characters, most of whom are well-drawn yet caricatured ne’er-do-wells.) What surprised me the most was the subtlety of the facial expressions of the main characters Rapunzel and Flynn/Eugene, big-eye characters though they be. (The big eyes keep us out of the uncanny valley, I’m pretty sure.) Cinderella’s face had three or four different expressions. Rapunzel’s face flowed smoothly across a whole spectrum of emotions. Even her pet chameleon Pascal (great name!) could show emotion without speaking a single word. At some point I think the animators were showing off: Rapunzel is barefoot for the whole film, and her feet are animated realistically, right down to her toes.

There are a couple of funny animals, especially the hero horse Maximus, who at times thinks and acts like a dog. The animals, however, do not steal the show. What steals the show are the subtle and dazzling backdrops, especially the scenes with the film’s core motif, the candle-lofted flying lanterns. If you’ve never seen the film, you can see the lantern scene during the big love song “I See the Light” on YouTube. I consider that song, hands-down, the best love song from any Disney animated film. I could easily sing Flynn’s part about Carol.

None of this is to dump on Cinderella. It was the best Disney could do in 1950, and I’ll see it again for the mice alone. But Tangled represents something that animation has been working toward in fits and starts for more than a century: an emotionally engaging fantasy world full of startlingly beautiful things. You may have to mellow out a little bit to enjoy it to the fullest; it’s not an action film at heart. So if you can stream it or buy the disc, pour yourself a glass of wine, kick back and just let it take you.

Highly recommended.

Review: Rise of the Guardians

A few nights ago, Carol and I watched Dreamworks’ 2012 animated feature, Rise of the Guardians. It came free with Amazon Prime, and given the research I’d done on Dreamhealer, I wanted to see another take on good dreams vs. nightmares. As with any of my movie reviews, there will likely be spoilers here, so read or don’t read accordingly.

I would characterize Rise of the Guardians as “so strange that it’s cool.” The animation is nothing short of dazzling, even ten years on. The studio clearly drew every idea they had and tossed it into the pot. They might have stirred the pot a little more, but stay tuned. I’ll come back to that.

The premise sounds loopy: Under a certain amount of protest Jack Frost joins the Guardians, who protect children from, well, bad stuff, especially Pitch Black, a well-drawn villain voiced by Jude Law. So we have a sort of League of Holiday Superheroes starring a Russian Santa Claus named North, with “Nice” tattooed on one forearm and “Naughty” on the other. North’s colleagues include The Sandman, who doesn’t talk but makes his thoughts known by drawing them in golden sand, an Easter Bunny channelling Crocodile Dundee, and the Tooth Fairy, who is very sweet but in truth doesn’t bring a lot to the table in terms of super powers. Jack Frost was selected as a Guardian by the Man in the Moon, but would prefer to help kids have fun in the snow. Bunny brings colored eggs. Jack Frost brings snow days. North brings toys. Sandman brings pleasant dreams. Tooth Fairy brings quarters, and hoards the teeth she takes in return as forgotten childhood memories. (Echoes of the excellent Pixar cartoon feature Inside Out.) Yes, loopy, but I bought it, especially as a satire of comic-book superheroes.

It’s a little unclear where Pitch Black has been, but he’s returned with some very literal nightmares and is ready to drop them into little kids’ heads. But that’s not the whole story. Pitch is somehow persuading kids to stop believing in North & his gang, and too much of that will make them disappear. This was the one trope I found tiresome, since we see it so often in films: Believe in Santa Claus or he loses his powers and eventually goes away.

Pitch tries to recruit Jack Frost (cold and dark; what a dynamic duo they could be!) but Jack, always a bit of a snot, wants none of it. This is where the film gets a little incoherent. One of the kids (Jamie) is a strong believer, but even he starts losing it. Although Jack is normally invisible, Jamie (as best I can tell) believes in him so strongly that Jamie can see Jack Frost. (None of the other kids can, though they sled happily on the ice that Jack creates.) Jack plays a few sumptuous visual tricks with frost and snow and helps Jamie win back his belief. The other kids in Jamie’s gang come around soon after, though it all happens so fast it’s a little hard to tell what the mechanism is. The Guardians then battle Pitch Black and take a lot of hits. In fact, Sandman is overwhelmed by Pitch’s black nightmare sand and disintegrates. (Pitch is sort of a sandman for the Dark Side.)

In the climax, the Guardians (minus Sandman) and Jamie’s gang confront Pitch. Jamie has one of the best lines in the film when he takes a step toward Pitch and says, “I believe in you. But I’m not afraid of you.” The other kids step forward and echo Jamie. Pitch, furious, directs his black sand at them. Jamie (followed by the others) raises his hand and (somehow) Pitch’s black sand turns into golden sand, which then reverses course and not only tosses Pitch to the butt end of (somewhere) but brings back Sandman.

And that’s where the pot could use a little more stirring. What I think the scriptwriters wanted was for the kids to reject nightmares in favor of good dreams, and by believing in Sandman bring him back to life. They missed a chance to make that explicit. Jamie should say something more at the climax: “I believe in you. But I’m not afraid of you. We all remember our best dreams, and we believe in them.” Who brings good dreams? Sandman. So by remembering the good dreams that Sandman always brought, they bring Sandman back. Those memories could have been strengthened by Tooth Fairy, who, alas, doesn’t have much of a role in the climax.

Maybe the animators ran out of time. Maybe I failed to notice a few things. The film is so gaspingly kinetic that you could blink and miss a whole subplot. It’s certainly a tour de force of gorgeous computer graphics.

All that said, I enjoyed it a lot and will probably watch it again, in an effort to see what I might have missed the first time. Note that it’s a little intense (and complicated) for the under-seven set. Don’t expect total coherence. Plan on just enjoying the ride, whether or not the whole thing makes sense or hangs together. (My inner life as a ten-year-old wasn’t especially coherent either. I wouldn’t pick the nits then that I routinely pick now.) No. Leave your nitpicker in the medicine cabinet. Think of the whole thing as a cool dream. It is.

Reasonably recommended.

Review: Where Is Everybody? by Stephen Webb

41oxPnAPxHL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI have a lot of books. In general, when I buy (or somehow acquire) a book I read it right away. I realized a few weeks ago that although my sister gave me a copy of Ingathering by Zenna Henderson some years back, it got shelved without being read. My bad. My review is in my entry for 2/9/2021.

So I went hunting for other books in this situation. The Principle of Mediocrity applies here: If there was one unread book on my shelves, there will probably be others. It didn’t take long to find one: Where Is Everybody? by Stephen Webb. It’s not a new book. It was published in 2002, and sent to me for review in 2003 by an editor at Copernicus Books, Paul Farrell. 2002 was not a good year for me, for reasons you know already. In a way, it remains the annus horribilis of my life. In 2003 we moved away from Arizona to get away from constant reminders of the horribilis. (For newcomers: 2002 was the year my publishing company here in Arizona crashed and burned, through no fault of my own. Long story.) So I guess it’s unsurprising that the book went onto the shelves unread. In fact, it probably went straight into a box. I (finally) finished it an hour or so ago.

As an SF writer, it’s a topic I have a keen interest in: aliens, and the cogent question asked by physicist Enrico Fermi way back in 1944: If there is life elsewhere in the universe, why haven’t we encountered evidence of it yet?

Good question. A lot of really smart people have grappled with it, but the (obvious) spoiler is that we don’t know. (Yet.) Where Is Everybody? is a systematic presentation of fifty proposed explanations for why we’ve not encountered the Galactic Confederation. The author gives each a number and takes us through them in order, explaining why none of them really answers Fermi’s question. For example, Solution 20 is “We Have Not Listened Long Enough.” There’s a lot of Universe, and we’ve only been listening to “waterhole” frequencies for an insignificant amount of time, compared to the lifetime of our galaxy. Solution 44 is “The Prokaryote-Eukaryote Transition Is Rare.” That was a new one for me (biology is not my field) and involves the jump between primordial single-celled life and the more complex form of single-celled life that eventually evolved into multicellular organisms. We can’t explain how it happened, but somehow it did. Was it a fluke? Don’t know.

Stephen Webb separates the 50 proposed explanations of the Fermi Question into three broad groups: 1. They Are Already Here. 2. They Exist But Have Not Yet Communicated. And 3. They Do Not Exist. A lot of the issues are things I had read about elsewhere. A surprising number were new to me. Along the way, he talks about the Drake Equation and how it relates to the probability of finding intelligent life beyond Earth. In a sense, most of the issues discussed in the book either represent existing terms of the Drake Equation, or could be considered new ones.

All the usual explanations are taken up: berserkers, species suicide here on Earth, the Rare Earth hypothesis (which is actually taken up in several parts, each with its own number and section in the book) gamma ray bursters, asteroid bombardment, giant planets in the wrong places, lack of a Moon, lack of plate tectonics in most rocky planets, and so on.

A few of the proposed solutions may strike some as outre. Solution 7 is “The Planetarium Hypothesis,” which proposes that we are living in a simulated universe, with the superhuman aliens behind the scenes, pulling the levers and observing us. That’s an interesting one because it can be disproven, using what we know about the data and energy requirements of a simulation as good as our reality suggests. Solution 8 is “God Exists,” and He set things up just right for the universe to evolve us–and perhaps created an infinitude of other universes either sterile or fine-tuned to benefit other intelligent life. I’m reminded of Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 pseudo-novel Star Maker, in which an unthinkably powerful being creates a series of universes, each more “mature” than the last. (I found the book largely impenetrable when I read it at 17. It may be worth another look 51 years later. If nothing else, I’ve developed patience in the interim.)

Webb’s writing is refreshingly clear and easygoing. He’s a natural explainer, in the same way that Isaac Asimov was. He cites a lot of researchers and their research as he explains each topic, and there is a fat section of references and pointers to further readings at the back of the book. I came away from it feeling satisfied with the time I spent, and better still, that I learned something–a lot of somethings, in fact–along the way.

Webb does not intend to prove (or disprove) the existemce of Extrarrestial Civilizations (ETCs). The point of the book (or the joker in the deck, if you’re a fervent believer in ETCs) is that we do not have anything close to enough data to form a conclusion. He does confirm the feeling I had as he explained one possible solution after another: There are a lot of very difficult hurdles between a sterile planet and a starfaring civilization. By the end, I felt that he had added a good fifteen or twenty new terms to the Drake Equation. If those new terms are as difficult as our research suggests, yes, we are indeed an exceedingly unlikely Cosmic Fluke, and probably alone in the universe.

This doesn’t bother me, even as a science fiction writer. When I was a teen and for a few years afterward, I wrote stories about aliens. However, I’ve judged only two of them good enough to put before the public: Firejammer and “Born Again, With Water.” My conclusion is mostly this: If intelligent alien life exists elsewhere in the universe and we come upon them, we may not have much to talk about. We may not be able to talk to them at all. Shared experience, even the shared experience of being born into an orderly and comprehensible universe, may be impossible across the gulf to an alien mind.

That is, unless you count my Metaspace Saga, in which aliens create our universe as a way of obtaining a better random-number generator. Except–they’re not really aliens. No more spoilers. I’m working on it. There are some hints in The Cunning Blood. The rest will come out eventually.

In the meantime, I powerfully recommend Stephen Webb’s book. What I didn’t notice until I went up to schnarf the book’s cover image for this entry is that he published a second edition in 2015–and now he’s got seventy-five proposed solutions to tackle. I’ll pick that one up eventually. In the meantime, I’m scanning my shelves for other gems that may have been hiding from me. They’re in there somewhere. Like I said, I have a lot of books.

Review: Ingathering by Zenna Henderson

ingathering.jpgSome years ago, my sister gave me a copy of the NESFA Press hardcover edition of Ingathering, a collection of all of Zenna Henderson’s stories of The People, including a story timeline tying them together into a loose history. It came to me during a turbulent period of my life, and for some reason (Losing my publishing company? Moving to Colorado? Retirement? Moving back?) I never just sat down and read it. For that I apologize to her. I just finished it this afternoon. It was well worth the time and effort.

The stories are old; some were published the year I was born. (Zenna was born in 1917 and died in 1983.) I read many but not all of them before. I still have the MMPBs I bought in high school and college, and I’m glad I don’t have to read them again. My new reading glasses won’t be in for a week or two, and these old eyes just can’t process such small print by themselves anymore, quite apart from the fact that simply turning the now-yellowed pages would probably destroy the books.

If you’ve never heard of Henderson’s People, here’s the quick summary: In 1890, six starships full of the inhabitants of a planet they simply call The Home flee the planet, which is inexplicably disintegrating from no stated cause. One of these starships attempts a landing on Earth and miscalculates re-entry. An unstated number of People leave the big ship in lifeboats, and (some) land successfully in various places on Earth. The big ship crashes in (I think) the American West, still in 1890. The People Saga (my coinage) is about how the People struggle within a culture that treats them with suspicion and burns some as witches. For the People have what they call Signs and Persuasions, basically (to use that fine old ’50s term) psi powers. No complete catalog is given, but there are Sorters (intuitive psychiatrists), Motivers (telekinetics), Seers (prophets), Lifters (self-telekinetics), and a fair number of others, including one, called The Francher Kid, who can make musical instruments play themselves. All are telepathic. Over the years (the timeline runs from 1890 to 1970) the lifeboat refugees who survived the landing gradually find one another, and with greater or lesser success melt into human society.

The People are physically indistinguishable from us Earthlings, close enough to interbreed. Although not Christian, they worship a trinitarian God whom they call The Name, The Power, and The Presence. They are generous, kind, enthusiastic, helpful, and for the most part what Earthlings should be but aren’t. Friendship matters to them, and as you’ve heard me say many times, friendship is the cornerstone of the human spirit.

The People stories have been criticized as mawkish, corny, sentimental, maudlin, and repetitive. Many are tear-jerkers. Nearly all are surprisingly moving, especially if you’ve purged the cowardice some call cynicism from your life. (I have.) I put the box of Kleenex that lives on my desk on the table next to my reading chair. Yes, I needed it. A few of them made me want to stand up and cheer. That’s one reason I read them all again, after almost fifty years. There are no downer endings. Every single one is upbeat and affirming. And boy, considering the shitshow we’re all still in the middle of, I needed that.

Many of the stories are told from the viewpoint of one-room schoolhouse teachers in what is almost certainly Arizona, where Zenna Henderson was born, lived, wrote, and died. That’s what she was. Having been a teacher, she wrote from the heart about the very, very human business of learning. And not just numbers or words, but what’s right and what’s wrong, coming to know and growing into your own “magic powers,” how we are all very much in this together, and how together we can make it all work.

I’m still a little surprised that the only TV/cinema treatment of the People is a now mostly forgotten 1972 made-for-TV movie starring William Shatner and Kim Darby. (You can watch it on YouTube, if you can stand resolution that low.) I saw it in 1972 and enjoyed it. If anything deserves a 2021 reboot, The People Saga does.

I have a few reservations about the People Saga:

  • The People are just too damned perfect. Ok, there are a couple of stories showing members of the People acting selfishly, but for the most part, damn, if you need a hand they’ll fly half their settlement over to get you through a crisis.
  • Hard SF guy that I am, I wanted to know how they were so genetically identical to us that we could interbreed. Henderson shows no lack of imagination. It could be that some ancient godlike race scattered humans across the galaxy and let them grow into their powers. We chose machinery. The People chose…themselves. She could have given us a quick paragraph clarifying the matter.
  • Similarly, planets don’t just alluvasudden fall apart. There’s a whole well-known catalog of possible cosmic catastrophes. I wanted to know which one prompted the People’s star-crossed star crossing to Earth. Granted, that’s just me. Henderson provides some surreal hints that The People had forgotten too much about science and technology, and that The Power had to force them to remember what they’d lost, even if it meant scragging their planet and sending them across the galaxy to live among primitives who’d just as soon kill you as look at you.
  • Is FTL one of their psi powers? Damn, if I could only have one, that’d be the one. But there’s no indication of how their starships trumped Einstein.
  • The stories get a little repetitive at times. This is what worries me about my own Drumlins Saga. I don’t want the stories to plow the same field over and over. On the flipside, even when she tells the same story for the seventh time, it’s still affirming and still makes me reach for the Kleenex. She knew what she was doing, and was damned good at it.

I grinned to see this in Zenna’s Wikipedia bio: She was buried in Benson, Arizona.

Anything else I might say would include spoilers. I loved the book, and will read it again if life ever gets a little too depressing. If you need a mood-lift and don’t mind reaching for the Kleenex when necessary, well, here it is. Highly recommended.

A Year and Change on APAP

A year ago this past May, one of my doctors suggested that my lack of energy might be due to sleep apnea. Carol verified this; she has heard me stop breathing numerous times while lying beside me in bed. The doc prescribed an at-home “headband” sleep study, which at least verified his suspicion of apnea. The device (which was just that: a headband with electrodes) recorded an AHI of 33. Basically, I would stop breathing 33 times an hour. This seemed excessive and still does, for reasons I’ll explain a little later. But the next step was obvious: He handed me a prescription for an APAP machine. “APAP” is an adjustable pressure CPAP. The machine senses your breathing, and sends enough air through the hose to keep you breathing, no more.

I shopped around online, and got an NOS (new, old stock) ResMed S10 Auto. It was half the price of a new machine, even though it was still sealed in its original packaging. I bought a couple of different masks, and gave them all a good shot.

At first it made me nuts. I have never been a strong sleeper, and having this thing strapped to my face all night kept me awake. The full-face mask that most people use was a non-starter. I used a few other types of mask, and finally found that I could actually sleep a little using a “nasal pillows” mask, which has these two little soft silicone pads on a single strap that goes behind your head. The two pads each has a tube protruding from the middle, and those tubes go into your nostrils, while the soft pads keeps a good seal. Ok, a reasonably good seal. I still have problems with leaks around the edges of the pads, but that doesn’t negate the machine’s effectiveness.

It still kept me awake. So the doc put me on a new sleeping pill called Belsomra (Suvorexant) which, rather than sedating you, helps neutralize stimuli that prevent you from sleeping–like an APAP mask. And damn, it worked! I slept better than I had in a long time, with no interruptions but my two canonical bathroom breaks.

With the machine in operation, I was throwing just a few “events” every night. There are several kinds, and I don’t have the space to describe them all here. My personal favorite is hypopnea, which is shallow breathing, not airway obstruction. The doc said it doesn’t interrupt sleep. Some of the others I’m still not sure I understand, like Cheyne-Stokes Respiration; but that’s ok, as I think I’ve had it exactly once in thirteen months.

The S10 records everything it senses during the night on an SD card. You can pop the card out and read it any time. My correspondent TRX put me on to a free app called Sleepyhead, which takes the data from the card and throws up all kinds of graphs for Windows, Mac, and Linux. The damned thing literally graphs the shape of every single breath you take. You can see when you stop breathing, along with the following spike in pressure to open your airway again.

Ok. Now it gets a little odd, and a little disappointing. For the first six months I recorded AHIs of .5 to 7, which isn’t bad, especially compared to where I was starting from. The problem is, I still felt the profound lack of energy that’s been dogging me now for several years. I felt a little better, but I wonder if that was just the sleeping pill keeping me from reacting to dogs yipping in their sleep chasing archons in the akasha, or the drip system cranking up in the middle of the night. I stopped using the machine for a week. I didn’t feel any worse, nor better.

I’m still using it. I’ve worked out the optimal sleeping position through a year of trial-and-error: On my right side, with my head on a firm pillow, leaning back just a little to keep the mask from smooshing off my face due to pressure from the pillow. The data the S10 gives me showed me a few significant things: My AHI goes through the roof when I sleep on my back; something like 7-10. Oddly (and so far inexplicably) my AHI also goes up sharply when I sleep on my left side. Nobody can tell me why. So I sleep on my right side. I have to prop my right knee on a second pillow, but it works.

And now it gets more interesting still: I had been slowly putting on some weight for a year or two. So in February I cut my carb intake to as close to zero as I could manage, without starving myself. (Starving yourself doesn’t work. Really. What you might lose, you then gain back after the diet stops, and then some.) My weight went down from 163 to 148-150. It took a couple of months of this for me to notice, but eventually I saw it: As I lost weight, my AHI imploded. At the end of March I had my first perfect night: The S10 recorded no events at all, nothing. As spring continued, I saw my record improve even more: I started having perfect nights regularly, and then two or three (and once, four) in a row.

Carol mentioned something over breakfast one morning: I had lost weight in my face and my neck. I’ve never been seriously overweight, but I’ll be 67 in a week or so, and I’m trying to keep my A1C down to avoid Type 2. I was actually trying to eliminate visceral fat around my waist as much as possible. I didn’t even think I had fat in my face to lose.

I still haven’t regained my energy (which is one reason you don’t see as many Contra entries as you used to; I’m pouring most of what energy I have now into my fiction) and that problem remains unsolved. Maybe I’m just old. I don’t know. Coffee helps some. Beyond that, I’m out of things to try.

My only remaining theory is this: That headband sleep study was bogus. I suspect it was interpreting me jerking around in my sleep as apnea events–I’m an “active” sleeper and always have been. So although I did have sleep apnea, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the headband claimed. That said, I think the S10 has improved the quality of my sleep, which is beneficial in many ways beyond personal energy. This is why I continue to use it. My point here is that quality of sleep is not behind my energy deficit.

I’m still trying to figure that out. In the meantime, if you think you have apnea (spousal reports are good, and even a bad sleep study will give you some broad hints) I recommend two things:

1. Get yourself a recording APAP machine like the ResMed S10. Download Sleepyhead and watch your data, daily if possible. Development on the app has stopped, but it’s still available and works fine. You will learn a lot about how your sleeping position (and weight) affect your breathing.

2. Lose weight. This is good for lots of reasons (Type 2 being most important) but I’m pretty sure at this point that facial and neck fat are huge amplifiers for a tendency to apnea.

I’ve gone on long enough here for this busy morning, but if what I’ve experienced this past year will help my readers, it’s well worth it. Good luck. Cut carbs. Animal fat will not hurt you. (Certain vegetable oils will.) Sleep as much and as well as you can, even if it takes a machine to help you get there. Even (Gasp! The horror!) go to bed at 9 PM if that’s what it takes to get eight hours in before you have to go back to work or school. And pills; Belsomra is something entirely new in the human pharma cabinet. It is utterly unlike the nenzos or Z-drugs. Look into it if you have trouble sleeping.

More as I learn it. Let me know how you do, if you happen to be on this path as well.

Bouncing from Book to Book

Whoa. I’m about to do something I’ve never done before–and yes, I have drunk both whisky and black coffee–that makes me a hair uncomfortable: I’m about to recommend a book I haven’t even finished yet. And therby hangs a tale.

Back in 1991 or 1992, I noticed that a new Niven/Pournelle book had come out. In casual conversation, a friend of mine (now deceased) told me it was a waste of time and money and not to bother. The book? Fallen Angels, by Niven, Pournelle, and Mike Flynn. Even though I trusted his judgment, I was curious. I was close to a Niven completist at that point, and he remains up in my top three favorite SF authors of all time. Alas, in 1991, I was doing long, long days trying to establish a profitable publishing company, and in truth I wasn’t reading a lot of anything that didn’t directly relate to PC Techniques Magazine. So I passed on Fallen Angels. I’ve since passed on some of the later Ringworld books, and most of the Man-Kzin War saga. Not a completist anymore, I guess. The older I get, the more I ration my time and attention to things that will prove worthwhile.

Then I remembered a couple of weeks ago that Glenn Reynolds always cites Fallen Angels when he aggregates an article suggesting that the world has begun to chill. The core problem in Fallen Angels is that the Earth has begun a new ice age in the near future. An ice age!


I’ve always been interested in ice ages. Growing up in Chicago sometimes does that to people. I still lived in Chicago during the three blistering winters of 1977, 1978, and 1979. (And when I left, I went right to Rochester, NY, heh. No relief.) When I was a kid I had a plastic model skeleton of a mastodon. And I knew what a moraine was, having camped in Kettle Moraine State Park as a boy scout.

Six bucks on Kindle? Click. Sold! (The cover image, by the way, is gorgeous.) I didn’t start reading it right away, and the hideous conversion to ebook format made me nuts enough to order a paper copy before continuing. Typos, OCR errors, ugly layout, uggh. Nonetheless, I finished it.

No, that’s not the book I’m recommending. I didn’t hate Fallen Angels, but I didn’t love it. Much of the book consists of one SF fan in-joke after another. That was the intent, but self-referential art has always turned me off. The only one missing was lime jello, and it’s entirely possible that by then I had tuned out the fangab enough that it slipped passed me. It’s readable enough to finish, and if you were a fan in the ’70s and ’80s, you’ll recognize some of the people, or maybe even yourself.

No, what happened while reading Fallen Angels is that the book references another book, this time one that I’d never heard of before: The Sixth Winter, by Douglas Orgill and John Gribbin. Orgill was new to me. Gribbin is a British astrophysicist who has written a number of very good popular science books, my favorite of which being In Search of Shroedinger’s Cat. The Sixth Winter was published in 1979, and was about the emergence of a new ice age. (Gosh! Where did they ever get that idea?!!?!?) Four bucks on Kindle? Click. Sold! And just in case, I ordered a hardcover, because used hardcovers could be had for as little as $3.66.

As I write this, the hardcover is still on order. That was certainly a good bet, because the conversion to ebook format was every bit as bad as that of Fallen Angels. I started reading the crappy ebook edition…and couldn’t put it down. Wow. In Fallen Angels, the new Ice Age was backdrop at best. In The Sixth Winter, it’s the main attraction.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the book, since it’s full of clever little twists and turns, but I will say that it has something in common with the Carl & Jerry books: It tries to explain the science that it presents, more than you’d generally get away with in a typical SF adventure novel. I’ll present a hunch: Orgill wrote the fiction, and Gribbon wrote the science. I found it remarkable how such a book grabbed my attention. With the caution (again) that I have a keen interest in ice ages, I recommend it. It is not great fiction. But it is extremely vivid in its descriptions, and there are (fictional) ideas and (granted, dated) science that I’m much enjoying. So there! I did it! I recommended a book that I’m not quite halfway through. Make of it what you will. Sneaky tip: Buy a paper copy. You’ll grind your teeth less over OCR errors, which are legion. “Seat” becomes “scat.” Ouch.

Now hold on. The story isn’t over yet. Partway into The Sixth Winter, the book cites yet another book: Times of Feast, Times of Famine: A History of Climate Since the Year 1000, by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. (1971.) This is a nonfiction book. There is no ebook edition. (I was slightly relieved to learn that.) Paperbacks from $8.93. Why not? Click. Sold! I don’t have it yet, but it includes some contemporary accounts of the Little Ice Age, which I consider to be part of the Ice Age concept and am much looking forward to reading.

Why this sudden interest in ice ages? It’s not sudden; it’s always been there. But I’ll tip my hand just a little bit: I’m heading into the downwind leg of my current work-in-progress, Dreamhealer. Next up (this time fersure, Amy!) is The Molten Flesh. I’ve struggled with the sequel to The Cunning Blood for a long time. I’ve got a nanotech intelligence, an interesting heavy, and plenty of ideas to toss in the pot. The backdrop is still what it was in The Cunning Blood: Canada rules a half-depopulated Earth with an iron hand. The US is still a province under direct Canadian control. The question that arises is this: After being in complete control of the planet for well over a hundred years, what could possibly get Canada’s attention?

Heh. Captain Obvious signing off for now…

Cheap Machines: The HP/Compaq dc7900

Front View On Steampunk Table - 500 Wide.jpg

Back in the early oughts, I saw my first ultra-small form factor (USFF) PCs at our doctor’s office. The machines were Dell Optiplex SX270s, and they were little marvels: Quiet, fast, easy to field-strip and very reliable. (There was a certain widespread problem with bad electrolytic capacitors in that era, and I ran into a couple of SX270s and Samsung monitors containing said bad caps.) They were P4s running XP, and Carol used one successfully as her main machine for a number of years. We donated several to our church’s office, which was pretty full and rather tight, space-wise. Nobody had any trouble with them. Even in 2007, they could be had for $200 or less, depending on what they had in them in terms of RAM and HD.

The SX270s were 2001-era machines, and I’ve long since gotten rid of them. I had a couple of slightly later models, including the SX280 and GX620. I took the 620 to the Taos Toolbox SF workshop in the summer of 2011, along with my steampunk computer table and my Aethernet Concentrator, as Jim Strickland dubbed it. It mounted behind the monitor, and while that made it a little tricky to plug in thumb drives, it made very good use of what small space the table offered.

The steampunk computer table is still in my office, and if I ever go to another live-in workshop again, I’ll take it with me. The GX620 ran Win7 badly, and has been gone for several years now. I need a newer machine to go on the table. Notice I didn’t say a “new” machine. In fact, I was a little curious as to how cheap a machine I could get on eBay that would do the job (office apps) and mount to the dual arm monitor stand that I have clamped to the table. That meant a machine with VESA holes, ideally. Such exist; I had seen them years ago.

It didn’t take long to find such a machine: The HP/Compaq dc7900 USFF. At 10″ X 10″ X 2.75″ it’s a little smaller than the SX270. And the price, hokey smoke! I bought one for $37. Now, that didn’t include a hard drive, but I have a box full of empty SATA hard drives. It came with a DVD-RW drive (and LightScribe, at that, heh) 4GB RAM, and an outboard 135W power supply. The CPU is a 2.5 GHz dual-core Pentium E5200.

Cropped Front View dc7900 - 500 Wide.jpg

I installed Win7 on it, and boom! It just worked. It identified the Dell E228WFP monitor I had attached to the monitor stand and adjusted its resolution to match. I installed enough software to test it but no more than that; like I said, I don’t need it right now and it was mostly a research project and a bit of a stunt, to see how much machine I could buy online for how little money.

Below is a side view of the setup. I used four M4-10 screws to mount it to the monitor stand (VESA is a metric standard) and twisted the arm around until the dc7900 was level with the top edge of the monitor.

Side View - 500 Wide.jpg

Internally, the machine is uncrowded, with two small and almost silent fans to pull air past the CPU heatsink and out of the machine generally. It has eight USB ports, plus both PS/2 keyboard and mouse DIN connectors.

Interior Closeup - 500 wide.jpg

The hard drive is mounted underneath the optical drive, but both come out very quickly without any screwdriver involvement. The hard drive is screwed into a little spring-loaded caddy that snaps into place and mates the SATA connectors firmly, with a little constant spring pressure to keep the drive from walking out of electrical connection.

I’ve only been messing with it for a few days, but so far it’s been trouble-free and able to do anything I could throw at it. No, it’s not as fast as my quadcore. I won’t be doing any gaming or video editing on it. Word processing and email don’t take a lot of cycles. Web browsers are wildcards in that regard, but so far it’s been able to render YouTube videos without any stutter or artifacts.

If you need a physically small machine for ordinary office work, I recommend it. And hey, for $37 plus a junkbox SATA HDD and an OEM copy of Win7, I’d say it’s hard to beat.