Octavia Butler’s Oankali

Amy Deng’s Oankali for an art exer­cise “Imag­in­ing the Oankali.” A Google image search for Oankali and Ooloi does’t turn up much oth­er than a lot of rough fan art, but I liked this draw­ing a lot; as much because of its ana­lyt­i­cal approach as the rep­re­sen­ta­tion itself.

For the sec­ond year now, I’ve read an Octavia But­ler nov­el dur­ing the month of Feb­ru­ary. Feb­ru­ary, being black his­to­ry month, seemed like a good time to read her work and pay respect to one of the great­est sci­ence fic­tion authors. How­ev­er, it’s also a bit ridicu­lous to only rel­e­gate her work to one month a year and I plan to fin­ish the Xeno­gen­e­sis tril­o­gy (aka, Lilith’s Brood) this year. I espe­cial­ly love sci­ence fic­tion with tru­ly “alien” crea­tures and But­ler’s Oankali are unique in every aspect.

But if you’re not famil­iar with Octavia But­ler and her work —and I was­n’t for most of my life— take some time to learn more about her. She was by all indi­ca­tions a gen­uine­ly won­der­ful per­son who proved hav­ing diverse points of view are impor­tant to sci­ence fic­tion or any genre. I par­tic­u­lar­ly enjoyed read­ing this inter­view from In Motion Mag­a­zine, which was like­ly one of her last as well as watch­ing this inter­view with Char­lie Rose for PBS. Sci­ence fic­tion and fan­ta­sy gen­res have always had an issue with a lack of diver­si­ty and it is extra­or­di­nary what she accom­plished for women and peo­ple of col­or.

This final quote from an inter­view she did in Locus Mag­a­zine in 2000 makes me espe­cial­ly sad that she aban­doned her final para­ble nov­el:

Para­ble of the Trick­ster – if that’s what the next one ends up being called – will be the Seat­tle nov­el, because I have removed myself to a place that is dif­fer­ent from where I’ve spent most of my life. I remem­ber say­ing to Von­da McIn­tyre, ‘Part of this move is research,’ and it is – it’s just that Seat­tle is where I’ve want­ed to move since I vis­it­ed there the first time in 1976. I real­ly like the city, but it is not yet home. As they tell writ­ers to do, I’ll take any small exam­ple of some­thing and build it into a larg­er exam­ple. I’ve moved to Seat­tle; my char­ac­ters have moved to Alpha Cen­tau­ri, or what­ev­er. (That was not lit­er­al.) But they suf­fer and learn about the sit­u­a­tion there a lit­tle bit because of what I learn about from my move to Seat­tle. Writ­ers use every­thing. If it does­n’t kill you, you prob­a­bly wind up using it in your writ­ing.

So if you’re inspired to learn more about African-Amer­i­can con­tri­bu­tions dur­ing Black His­to­ry month, then by all means start with Octavia But­ler. Just be sure to not leave her there but con­tin­ue enjoy­ing her amaz­ing writ­ing any­time.

Great Year for My Reading Habit

Twen­ty Four­teen is shap­ing up to be a ter­rif­ic year for my favorite authors and book series. Here are some of the books I can’t wait to read (in order of release date):

  • 2/20: Influx by Daniel Suarez – I’ve not read the most recent books by Suarez, but I loved the Dae­mon series and plan to read these Gib­son-esque near-future nov­els.
  • 3/3: Words of Radi­ance by Bran­don Sander­son – I just fin­ished the first Storm­light Archive nov­el (and it’s mas­sive) and it is already one of my favorite fan­ta­sy series, with a very unique world and ter­rif­ic char­ac­ters.
  • 3/11: Men­tats of Dune by Bri­an Her­bert & Kevin J. Ander­son – Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that the sequels/prequals/expanded uni­verse nov­els haven’t been as good as the Frank Her­bert nov­els. To be fair, not all of the Frank Her­bert nov­els were on the same lev­el, either. How­ev­er, I’m such a Dune junkie, I eat these up with glee.
  • 6/17: Cibo­la Burn by James S.A. Corey – A new Expanse book is also get­ting to be near­ly an annu­al event, thank­ful­ly (of course, with two authors under one pen name, one would expect some turn around!). I start­ed the series last year right on time for the third book, and I’ve been wait­ing for the fourth ever since about a day after­wards.
  • 7/15: Half a King by Joe Aber­crom­bie – Okay, I’ve got a few books to read in this fan­ta­sy series to catch up to this one, but I real­ly liked Aber­crom­bie’s first books.
  • 8/5: The Magi­cian’s Land by Lev Gross­man – The Magi­cian’s series has been one of the most refresh­ing things in all of fan­ta­sy in a very long time. I’ve eager­ly await­ing the final(?) book in the series to see what end­ing befalls Quentin and crew.
  • 8/12: The Fool’s Assas­sin by Robin Hobb – Anoth­er series I’ve got to play catch-up on, but I real­ly liked the first two nov­el of Fitz and the Fool.
  • 8/26: Lock In by John Scalzi – It’s a new sto­ry­line (and pos­si­bly a series; at least there’s a novel­la to pre­cede it), but Scalz­i’s wit is always wel­come in sci­ence fic­tion. He’s already released a novel­la in the same world as this nov­el.
  • 10/7: Ancil­lary Sword by Ann Leck­ie – Ancil­lary Jus­tice was one of my favorite books of last year and I’m very hap­py that Leck­ie had the sec­ond nov­el in the series in the cham­ber (or she is an incred­i­bly fast writer, which is rare but would be wel­come). Her first book was nom­i­nat­ed for almost every award imag­in­able and I sin­cere­ly hope she wins them all!
  • 10/7: Arma­da by Ernest Cline – I loved Cline’s first nov­el and can’t wait to see what he’s got next. Update: Well it was bound to hap­pen for at least one book on this list. This title has been pushed back until July 2015.
  • 10/21: The Abyss Beyond Dreams: Chron­i­cle of the Fall­ers by Peter F. Hamil­ton – A new Com­mon­wealth uni­verse book!
  • 10/28: The Periph­er­al by William Gib­son – He’s back into the dystopi­an, dis­tant future. Not that I haven’t enjoyed the future-of-10-min­utes-from-now nov­els, either.
  • 11/18: Clakkers by Ian Tregel­lis – A new series start­ing in Tregel­lis’ cold­est war uni­verse.
  • 11ish? The Thorn of Ember­lain by Scott Lynch – A new Gen­tle­man Bas­tards book is get­ting to be like clock­work from Lynch. So far, he’s kept the char­ac­ters rich and slow­ly pulling the cur­tain back on a much larg­er fan­ta­sy world. This one does­n’t yet have a firm release date, but I’m hold­ing out hope.

Of course, it’s high­ly pos­si­ble (actu­al­ly, almost cer­tain) I’ll not get all of these books read by the end of 2014, but I wel­come the chal­lenge glad­ly!

It’s tough to pick just one that I’m most anx­ious about, but it would prob­a­bly have to be Ancil­lary Sword.

I was going to end this post with a pithy remark how if only Patrick Roth­fuss and GRRM would release some new nov­els this year, it would be com­plete. Well, no new nov­els, but Roth­fuss is releas­ing a novel­la in the Kingkiller Chron­i­cles in Octo­ber and GRRM is also con­tribut­ing a Game of Thrones (actu­al­ly, Song of Fire & Ice) short sto­ry to a fan­ta­sy col­lec­tion (Rogues) out next month he is co-edit­ing (which also con­tains oth­er sto­ries from many of these authors along with oth­ers I enjoy read­ing).

So, yeah, 2014 is pret­ty much shap­ing up to be a near per­fect year for genre fic­tion!

That being said, Patrick Roth­fuss and GRRM hav­ing until about mid­night, Decem­ber 31st, 2015 to get out The Doors of Stone and The Winds of Win­ter until I start pes­ter­ing them.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

I recent­ly lis­tened to the direct-to-Eng­lish trans­la­tion of Solaris com­mis­sioned by Audible.com. While I could appre­ci­ate much of the nov­el, I frankly did­n’t find it all that enjoy­able of a read/listen. I felt guilty about my 3‑star review on Goodreads.com until I noticed that Patrick Roth­fuss gave it 2 stars.
SolarisSolaris by Stanisław Lem
My rat­ing: 3 of 5 stars

I love sci­ence fic­tion with tru­ly ‘alien’ aliens. That being said, per­haps Lem went a bit too far in cre­at­ing some­thing we lit­er­al­ly can­not com­pre­hent or com­mu­ni­cate with.

After hav­ing recent­ly watched the Soder­bergh film from 2002, I decid­ed I’d like to read the ‘orig­i­nal’ (well, the recent Ama­zon/Audi­ble-direct­ed trans­la­tion into Eng­lish; not the Pol­ish). Hav­ing read the book, I can tru­ly appre­ci­ate what a let-down the movie was. While it was great movie, to para­phrase Lem, it was “love in out­er space”, not “Solaris.” The film does­n’t show a sin­gle wave or sur­face for­ma­tion and I bare­ly recall them men­tion­ing an ‘ocean’. It’s pret­ty impor­tant to the book, which reminds me…

…this is a book review, so I’ll dis­cuss the book and why I felt com­pelled to give a wide­ly-regard­ed mas­ter­piece only three stars. I can cer­tain­ly appre­ci­ate that the book is about the inabil­i­ty for humans to effec­tive­ly com­mu­ni­cate with a tru­ly ‘alien’ species. But the com­plete lack of any real inter­ac­tion between human­i­ty and the plan­et was frus­trat­ing. Peo­ple go there and occa­sion­al­ly die, but their explo­ration with this large­ly inert thing con­sists of fly-bys. How­ev­er, an entire branch of sci­ence has been ded­i­cat­ed to the planet/being. This results in lots of dry descrip­tions of explo­rations which sum to nill knowl­edge. Again, I con­cede it’s the philo­soph­i­cal point Lem is try­ing to make. I just argue it does­n’t make for the most engag­ing read­ing. It feels more like read­ing a Nation­al Weath­er Cen­ter’s descrip­tion of the his­to­ry of hur­ri­canes in out­er space (*makes note for idea of future sci­fi nov­el*).

Fur­ther, I felt the inabil­i­ty of the sci­en­tists to get over the shame, guilt, etc. they feel about their vis­i­tors hard to con­nect with. There’s been a shift in com­mon atti­tudes between 1961 Poland and 2013 Amer­i­ca which per­haps makes it hard for me to grasp the atti­tudes of ded­i­cat­ed sci­en­tists. Kelvin clear­ly rec­og­nizes this issue and hopes to address it, but I nev­er felt any sense of get­ting any­where this nudge in atti­tudes.

As I stat­ed, I tru­ly enjoy ali­en­ness in sci­fi, and I would rec­om­mend this book to any­one who does as well. I just wished I could have enjoyed it more.

View all my reviews

The Windup Girl

I fin­ished the audio­book of The Windup Girl, Pao­lo Baci­galupi mul­ti-award win­ning nov­el about life in a dystopic Thai­land after glob­al warm­ing and genet­ic engi­neer­ing have wrecked much of mod­ern soci­ety. Baci­galupi is a won­der­ful writer and it is an imag­i­na­tive sto­ry, wor­thy of the praise and awards that were heaped on it after the book’s release near­ly two years ago.

The Story

The sto­ry fol­lows the inter­sec­tion of a half-dozen-or-so key char­ac­ters who have all found them­selves in the Bangkok. While each char­ac­ter has a great deal of depth, it is real­ly the city and—through the lim­it­ed lens we’re allowed—the world that Baci­galupi describes that are the star.

Often, the sto­ry told in a nov­el falls into one of two cat­e­gories: an epic tale start­ing from small events lead­ing to world-chang­ing epochs and their after­math or (and this is case with The Windup Girl) we are giv­en but a nar­row win­dow into a greater world. Baci­galupi gives hints at the var­i­ous events that brought about the lives we are pre­sent­ed in this sto­ry though very lit­tle is giv­en as to where those lives go after­wards. We are just pre­sent­ed with a glimpse on the cross­roads of these char­ac­ters. While I found myself want­i­ng more of their sto­ries, I want to know more about the rest of the world even more so. I want to know about the inner work­ings of Agri­Gen. I want to know just what went down in Fin­land. And I want to know if life in Japan is as lux­u­ri­ous as it sounds when com­pared to the rest of the world in The Windup Girl.

Audiobook

The audio­book is per­formed by the excel­lent Jonathan Davis. The first audio­book per­for­mance I lis­tened to of his was Neal Stephen­son’s Snow Crash, one that remains a high mark of nar­ra­tion in my mind. His wide range of accents and voic­es tru­ly feels like a cast of per­form­ers. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, unlike Snow Crash, the pace felt too slow in The Windup Girl. Davis’ paus­es and cadences went beyond dra­mat­ic and bor­dered on tedious at var­i­ous points. The book isn’t a par­tic­u­lar­ly long nov­el but yet the per­formed at such a slow pace, the audio­book was ter­ri­bly long. For ref­er­ence, Snow Crash is 480 pages and the Davis-per­formed audio­book just over 17 hours where as The Windup Girl is 361 pages and the audio­book by the same per­former is 19 and a half hours long1. Though I’m a fan of Davis’ work and look for­ward to list­ing to more of his read­ing, this par­tic­u­lar per­for­mance drug on more than I cared for.

Slow pace aside, the audio­book is good and the sto­ry is great. I high­ly rec­om­mend it and tru­ly hope that Baci­galupi takes us back to this world again very soon.

  1. I’m aware page isn’t a stan­dard­ized met­ric, but I can’t account for that increase in length oth­er than very slow per­for­mance. []

Star Trek: The Animated Series Online

When I was a kid grow­ing up in the eight­ies, in a very rur­al part of the coun­try, my expo­sure to Star Trek was some­what lim­it­ed. I was too young to the orig­i­nal series that much, opt­ing for Lost in Space reruns if they were on, instead. How­ev­er, when Nick­elodeon began show­ing reruns of Star Trek: The Ani­mat­ed Series
, I was very much into it.

Unlike the orig­i­nal series (and, for that mat­ter, sub­se­quent ST series), this show had very alien-look­ing aliens1. Though some of the sto­ries were cribbed almost line for line from the orig­i­nal series, some oth­ers were new and even more fan­tas­tic than any­thing with live actors. My wife is a die-hard ST: The Next Gen­er­a­tion fan and I’d ven­ture most folks either go for the orig­i­nal series or TNG. The Ani­mat­ed Series has always been my favorite.

So I’m very excit­ed that CBS is stream­ing all of the episodes on StarTrek.com.

Decent ani­ma­tion, good sto­ries, and voice act­ing from the orig­o­nal series stars (includ­ing, the won­der­ful James Doohan as Arex as well as his more famous char­ac­ter, Scot­ty)

I just watched the first episode over lunch and I can’t wait to watch more with the fam­i­ly. Giv­en the very dif­fer­ent bud­getary con­cerns of ani­ma­tion, where spe­cial effects are cheap but each frame costs a lot, the show has lit­tle move­ment in any giv­en shot but the shots are often dra­mat­ic. In fact, rather than look­ing as dat­ed as one might expect, much of the show looks like a mod­ern flash-ani­mat­ed series for those very same rea­sons. The sto­ries are excel­lent; on par with a good sci­ence fic­tion nov­el and with less tech­no-bab­ble than many series in the genre suf­fer from2. Though

  1. I have read that part of this was Gene Roden­bury’s desire to nev­er cov­er the actor’s fea­tures. He seemed to feel that a more real­is­tic por­tray­al of an alien’s emo­tions and facial expres­sions was more impor­tant that make-up and pros­thet­ics. Admirable, though there is absolute­ly no rea­son to believe that alien species would express things in the same way as us (or even have the same emo­tions or log­ic), giv­en that pret­ty much no oth­er species on Earth does. []
  2. The jar­gon used in the first episode is actu­al­ly all pret­ty sound sci­ence and very lit­tle of it is just science‑y sound­ing filler. []

The Hyperion Cantos

Last night, I fin­ished the final book in Dan Sim­mon’s epic sci­ence fic­tion tetral­o­gy1, the Hype­r­i­on Can­tos. My imme­di­ate reac­tion to the series’ con­clu­sion was that I only want to read it again. They are just that great of a read.

In fact, if any­one who knows me had read these pre­vi­ous­ly and did­n’t rec­om­mend them to me, we are no longer friends. I am sin­cere­ly angry that I did­n’t read these as soon as they were pub­lished (though get­ting to read the whole series back-to-back is at least some com­pen­sa­tion). I spent a por­tion of my col­lege years look­ing for more nov­els like Frank Her­bert’s Dune and, as it turns out, Dan Sim­mons was writ­ing them at that same time.

In spite of my sig­nif­i­cant and legit­i­mate­ly earned geek-cred.2, I have to con­fess a lack of knowl­edge when it comes to some of the high lit­er­a­ture of sci­ence fic­tion. I have done my best and was raised well3, but I had decid­ed that I need­ed to real­ly edu­cate myself on sci­fi and fan­ta­sy lit­er­a­ture. So, I added any Hugo or Neb­u­la win­ning books to my audio­book wish list at the library. By luck, Hype­r­i­on hap­pened to be one of the first that was imme­di­ate­ly avail­able.

I did­n’t have to get too far into that book to see that it was going to be some­thing spe­cial. Oh, at first, it seemed like a sci­ence fic­tion ver­sion of Chaucer, but I’m pret­ty sure Chaucer did­n’t have a Shrike; a crea­ture describe with such ter­ri­ble details that actu­al­ly found myself look­ing over my shoul­der at night. Some­thing can be said for any book that can ele­vate your heart rate.

And though the Shrike thing is undoubtable why many are attract­ed to the book, it is the sense of mys­tery and promise that some­thing lies deep­er. The read­er quick­ly sens­es that there are lay­ers here; that the sto­ry is unfold­ing in some­thing oth­er than a straight line. In fact, through­out the series, we learn that the events aren’t even sim­ply par­al­lel but tru­ly non­lin­ear.

Sim­mons uses var­i­ous writ­ing styles and lit­er­ary devices, but always with a sense of pur­pose. When it I first feared that Sim­mons was sim­ply exer­cis­ing, it would lat­er see that what­ev­er device was in play served the sto­ry rather than some writer’s need to exper­i­ment. What’s more, there is a real sense of clo­sure at the end that can only come from a writer’s long plan­ning and effort. Though at times, Sim­mons could have left a lit­tle more to the imag­ine of his read­er rather than grab them by the col­lar and shake them, I nev­er felt a sense that he for­got the pre­vi­ous events in this epic.

What’s more &emdash; and this is where I feel that the Hype­r­i­on Can­tos is clos­est to the Dune series &emdash; is that even though this is an epic jour­ney, with events span­ning a mil­len­ni­um and detail­ing the evo­lu­tion of the human race, the sto­ry focus­es on a few key fig­ures and remains a per­son­al sto­ry of their jour­ney. Jour­ney, in the Hype­r­i­on Can­tos, is a word which Sim­mons also embues with every mean­ing pos­si­ble. Again, what feels like some­thing which could have start­ed as a cre­ative writ­ing exer­cise is place in per­fect con­text to serve a greater sto­ry. I must not be alone as this is a series where each book was nom­i­nat­ed for notable lit­er­ary awards, with three of the nov­els win­ning one or more awards. Though this is tru­ly a book that has all of the trap­pings of sci­ence fic­tion, the per­son­al tales are the ele­ments which make it great. I can tell you with no sense of shame that there were moments that brought tears to my eyes.

So, if it is clear: go read these books if you haven’t. I won’t be the kind of friend who does­n’t rec­om­mend them. And, if any of you have any sim­i­lar rec­om­men­da­tions for me, you’d bet­ter make them now before I find them on my own. Else, we’ll be hav­ing words, my (for­mer) friend.

Which reminds, me I need to get back to my library list and see what­ev­er great gems are out there that I have missed, includ­ing some oth­ers by Sim­mons.

  1. Though, it seems that Sim­mons feels these are real­ly two nov­els, bro­ken apart for pub­lish­ing. []
  2. Seri­ous­ly, I throw down with you nerds any time. I was born a nerd and ain’t no John­ny-come-late­ly to this stuff just because skin­ny guys with iPods are cool. []
  3. Some of my very first mem­o­ries are of hob­bits sneak­ing into Mor­dor, as my mom read Tolkien to my broth­er and me. []

Pandorum

I watched Pan­do­rum over the course of a cou­ple of days this past week1. I real­ly had­n’t seen or read a lot about the film, oth­er than a trail­er and a very short inter­view with Den­nis Quaid on Leno (or some evening talk show). I was­n’t real­ly sure what to expect; but what­ev­er I was expect­ing, this film was­n’t quite it.

Need­less to say, this is going to be filled with spoil­ers. You have been warned.

This poster of Pan­do­rum makes sense. The one with the wiring in the man’s arm does not. The lat­ter per­haps let to some of my mis­placed expec­ta­tions.

The film is real­ly like two sci­fi films spliced togeth­er, with only a min­i­mal attempt and bring the sto­ries back togeth­er at the end. This, I think, was where I felt most dis­ap­point­ed in the film. And I mean dis­ap­point­ed. I real­ly want­ed to love this movie. The act­ing is real­ly quite good, I thought. Quaid gave one of his stronger per­for­mances in some time2. I real­ly liked Ben Fos­ter as Bow­er. I could­n’t help but think that he remind­ed of a younger Edward Nor­torn; and that is a very good thing. Cam Gigan­det was tru­ly un-nerv­ing as Gal­lo and one of the high­lights of the movie. The remain­der of the cast were strong and all of the action was believ­able 3.

As a tech­ni­cal effort, this film tru­ly shows off the Ger­man film indus­try exceed­ing­ly well and cred­it should be giv­en because almost all scenes employ phys­i­cal sets and real actors & mon­sters. That’s a rar­i­ty in the age of hyper-real CG films like Avatar; and this film looks great. I’ll cer­tain­ly be watch­ing direc­tor Alvart’s oth­er films and would love to see him write/ direct more sci­ence fic­tion. If any were to be set of the plan­et of Tanis in the 32nd cen­tu­ry, all the bet­ter.

But at the end of the film, I felt emp­ty. I want­ed some­thing more out of this movie that I real­ly want­ed to like. It sort of stayed with me for the past few days. Name­ly, what I think this movie real­ly need­ed was one strong plot. Instead, it had two weak ones.

In plot A, we have the pro­tag­o­nist who rep­re­sents san­i­ty and human­i­ty fight­ing hordes of mon­sters4 with a few sur­vivors to reach a goal and return. It is pret­ty clas­sic scifi/ horror/ apocalypse/ sur­vival stuff. There’s noth­ing wrong with that genre and this film does a mod­est effort at that.

In plot B, we have a phys­i­o­log­i­cal thriller as we try and fig­ure out which of two char­ac­ters tru­ly suf­fers from Pan­do­rum (aka — space mad­ness), either the good Lt. Pay­ton or the edgy Gal­lo. We soon find what pass­es as the sto­ry’s one nov­el twist in this plot line. That is, that they are Tyler Dur­den.

Some Issues

Pan­do­rum’s treat­ment of hyper-sleep for sub-light speed space trav­el is sci­fi gold and is right­ly used to advance the plot (both of them, actu­al­ly). From the grog­gi­ness and “mild” mem­o­ry loss to the absolute gross clean­ing off of hun­dreds of years worth of shed skin5, it all real­ly helped to give Pan­do­rum a bit of its own style right from the begin­ning. It said to me that the writer and direc­tor had thought about this and were going to show us their own vision here. It real­ly helps to set why a lot of these events unfold and was a bit of bril­liance; and I real­ly hate to see that not play out in the end.

We see the psy­cho­log­i­cal effects of deep space trav­el as well, in the form of the film’s name­sake ill­ness. We get a school-book expla­na­tion from Pay­ton ear­ly on as Bow­er asks about him about it. Lat­er, we seen both men seem­ing to suf­fer from some of the symp­toms. How­ev­er, oth­er than some weird looks and what we can only assume are hal­lu­ci­na­tions on the part of Bow­er, his issues are nev­er real­ly explored (Pay­ton’s & Gal­lo’s are pret­ty well explained in full, bad guy mono­logue style). The polar­i­ty of Bow­er and Payton/Gallo as human­i­ty ver­sus insan­i­ty real­ly could have been bet­ter dealt with in the film’s cli­max. We’re left with a sense of con­fu­sion. What caused Bow­er to be able to over­come the ill­ness? What strug­gles did he face in doing so? Sim­ply hav­ing him shake it off seems a bit weak for the ill­ness which so impor­tant the film was named after it. Oth­er­wise, we could have called the movie Space Mutant Hunters.

The biggest fail­ure in terms of sto­ry is tying the two pro­tag­o­nists togeth­er in some mean­ing­ful way: Payton/Gallo and the mutant hunters. Just to say that Gal­lo slept and the hunters evolved is like try­ing to assume the but­ter­fly effect as a plot device. Sure there may have been some domi­noes from one that result­ed in the oth­er, but why not give us a bit more of a con­crete rela­tion­ship? This would have woven the two plot lines togeth­er, instead of just lick­ing the back of one and hop­ing it stays on the oth­er.

Some Suggestions

So, what would I have done dif­fer­ent­ly? I mean, after all, I’m just throw­ing spit­balls if I don’t offer some­thing con­struc­tive, right?

I think the reac­tor core should have been relat­ed to hunter mutants in a more con­crete fash­ion. There seems to be no ratio­nal as to why they all sleep there. It may be a trite sci­fi con­ven­tion to claim that expo­sure to radi­a­tion caus­es rapid (and often hor­rif­ic, back­wards) evo­lu­tion, but it isn’t so com­mon­place that it can just be assumed (if that is even what has hap­pened here). So, in very clear terms we should state to the view­ers that the ship decid­ed to wake Bow­er up specif­i­cal­ly for his exper­tise with radi­a­tion leaks in reac­tor cores (most of the flight crew are dead, so the ship has to wake up the one spe­cial­ist it has left). Unbe­known to the ship and to Bow­er, some of the pas­sen­gers clos­er to the core who were wok­en by Gal­lo cen­turies ear­li­er began to get sick (Pan­do­rum!) nev­er went back to sleep nor­mal­ly. They began to try to use pow­er from the reac­tor core, but instead dam­aged it. After gen­er­a­tions (and hav­ing been giv­en the evo­lu­tion-enhanc­ing drugs for set­tlers), they devolved into the hunters we see today. They live near the reac­tor core as they have learned that it mutates their off­spring faster, mak­ing them more effec­tive hunters.

As I said, the hunters and Payton/Gallo need a more con­crete rela­tion­ship, as well. Since it is stat­ed that Gal­lo tried to act like a god, why have the hunters wor­ship him as such. Fear of him and his whims is one of the few human-like thoughts they have passed on. The reac­tor core room could be strewn with cave mark­ings (as opposed to the can­ni­bal cook’s cham­ber) telling this sto­ry, which serves to tip off Bow­er6. In fact, they could see him as the destroy of Earth since he deliv­ered the mes­sage to their ances­tors and revere him as a hunter of whole worlds. To what­ev­er extent the hunters revere him, in the final encounter with Payton/Gallo, the hunters can be sneak­ing in and just when Bow­er thinks they’ll do in Payton/Gallo for him, they refuse to and begin advanc­ing on Bow­er. This would ad a huge lev­el of fear for the pro­tag­o­nists as now both the antag­o­nists are work­ing togeth­er. Water & eject­ing in a sleep pod due to hull breach would still be an accept­able end to stop­ping these unstop­pable vil­lains of the sto­ry.

Also, as stat­ed ear­li­er, see­ing the dif­fer­ence in how Pan­do­rum affect­ed both Bow­er and Pay­ton would have been sat­is­fy­ing. It would have made it clear to us the kind of strug­gles that both went through but only Bow­er could over­come. I think if Pay­ton (while in his right mind) had giv­en Bow­er the advice which allows him to over­come bits of anxiety/ Pandorum/ space-mad­ness; but that Pay­ton him­self doesn’t/didn’t fol­low when he is Gal­lo. This would tie the two char­ac­ters togeth­er while set­ting their paths apart in the sto­ry.

I would also have liked to have seen the symp­toms of Pan­do­rum, specif­i­cal­ly the vivid hal­lu­ci­na­tions aspect, play a lit­tle more promi­nent­ly into the sto­ry for Bow­er. Clear­ly, the hal­lu­ci­na­tions were a major com­po­nent of Payton/Gallo’s sto­ry. So why should Bow­er only see one such hal­lu­ci­na­tion for a short peri­od at the cli­max of the film? Were more of his inter­ac­tions actu­al­ly hal­lu­ci­na­tions; maybe even ones which he and oth­er human sur­vivors shared? Not to go all deus ex machi­na here, but what if the whole hunter prob­lem is just a shared hal­lu­ci­na­tion brought on by para­noia and hal­lu­ci­na­tions of wak­ing crew? Per­haps Pan­do­rum isn’t a rare ill­ness at all, but in fact the norm when a human has been in sus­pend­ed ani­ma­tion for cen­turies? Just seems like a host of missed oppor­tu­ni­ties here in terms of ways to lever­age what set this sto­ry apart; all giv­en up in favor of the mutant attack movie.

Last­ly, while I appre­ci­at­ed the hunters, I think the at some lev­el detract­ed from the strong part of the sto­ry. Too much screen time was spent on them when the tru­ly nov­el ele­ments of the sto­ry were left for us to guess at. Though it pains to me to say it, I’d have actu­al­ly rather had less killer mutant hordes in this film (and I am indeed a huge fan of killer mutant hordes, to be for sure). Instead, I’d rather seen more on the inter­nal and human/human con­flicts.

This notion struck me as a laid down to sleep the evening after hav­ing fin­ished watch­ing Pan­do­rum. It was­n’t the hunters that made me take that one last glace over my shoul­der before going to sleep. It was the thought of Gal­lo creep­ing up behind me. That’s a great vil­lain.

And there it is. Some of the rea­sons of why I felt like this movie gar­nered three out of five stars. I want­ed to real­ly like it, but could­n’t shake the nag­ging feel­ing that in the enor­mous effort to craft such a well-styled film that much of the plot ele­ments got left in the direc­tor’s note­book or on the edit­ing room floor. It is a good sci­fi film and worth the time of any fan of the genre, just the same.

Note: I haven’t done a film review on this site in quite a long time and I sin­cere­ly regret doing so. I hope to get back into that and often it is a book or film such as this — where I felt that it fell just short of being great — that moti­vates me to do so.

  1. It’s real­ly not Ange­la’s sort of movie, so I watched it over the course of two lunch breaks. One of the perks of work­ing from home, I sup­pose. []
  2. Though, giv­en that this film came out around the same time as G.I. Joe, that’s a real­ly low per­son­al bar. I haven’t seen Legion, but I’m also not hear­ing any­thing pos­i­tive there, either. []
  3. Noth­ing ruins fight scenes like bad wire work for me. This film has some aer­i­al, Hong Kong style fight­ing and it is all done well and blends into the film. []
  4. The mon­sters are essen­tial­ly the Reavers from Firefly/Serenity with a bit of orcs from Lord of the Rings thrown in to make them seem a bit more alien. That being said, they are creepy as hell and work well. []
  5. Not that I’m want­i­ng to be over­ly picky here, but how could Bow­er have had a thick sheet of skin to pull off and only the kind of beard I grow in a few weeks. I’d have gone with a crazy beard and hair. []
  6. Instead, we have Pay­ton’s wife. A mem­o­ry of a char­ac­ter who is nev­er explained, nor — for that mat­ter — is Pay­ton. Why is Gal­lo in his cham­ber? He sort of has to be for the sto­ry and yet I don’t recall any expla­na­tion of who Pay­ton was or why Gal­lo would end up there. []

Eight Years and Still Suffering

It’s been eight years today since the coor­di­nat­ed attack on New York and Wash­ing­ton D.C. in which almost 3,000 peo­ple per­ished. Most of us have gone on with our lives; I know that feels like a life­time ago when I recall where I was and what I was doing. How­ev­er, for many of the first respon­ders and res­i­dents in low­er Man­hat­tan, life has­n’t gone on. I watched the doc­u­men­tary Dust to Dust: The Health Effects of 9/11 ear­li­er today after think­ing about these peo­ple. I sup­pose I had the impres­sion that ill health effects from the recov­ery and clean-up efforts were lim­it­ed to a few indi­vid­u­als. If this doc­u­men­tary is even half true1 (and it does seem legit based on some addi­tion­al read­ing I did today), the effects were far worse than I imag­ined.

Dust-to-Dust-title

It is trag­ic how the peo­ple that the nation — and indeed the world — lined up to thank as heroes have been treat­ed since. The doc­u­men­tary lays the blame at the EPA and the Bush admin­is­tra­tion for mis­han­dling the health issues and rush­ing back to a sense of nor­mal­cy (some­thing which was not with­out rea­son; though does­n’t jus­ti­fy the lack of safe­ty pre­cau­tions). Once we learn about the treat­ment of these peo­ple who ran toward dan­ger and worked tire­less­ly to help, we all get to shoul­der some of that blame, too. We can­not allow peo­ple who serve the pub­lic to be treat­ed as throw-away tools. It is entire­ly dis­re­spect­ful to their sac­ri­fice and it ensures that no one will step up to fill these roles for future gen­er­a­tions. I’ve not found any­thing that sug­gest these indi­vid­u­als are ask­ing for hand­outs. They want to be treat­ed with the respect deserved them, those respon­si­ble for plac­ing them in unsafe con­di­tions to be held respon­si­ble, and to get the care they need. That’s real­ly not ask­ing for much, in my opin­ion.

So, if you can find an hour to spare, I high­ly rec­om­mend watch­ing this doc­u­men­tary. This isn’t some left- or right-wing polit­i­cal agen­da film. It is a inti­mate look at how mod­ern Amer­i­ca, in her rush to get back to our nor­mal way of liv­ing, has indeed for­got­ten about some of those we swore we nev­er would for­get.

Inci­den­tal­ly, he doc­u­men­tary is nar­rat­ed by actor Steve Busce­mi. Busce­mi, as it turns out, was a for­mer New York City fire­fight­er and returned to New York on Sept. 12 to help aid in recov­ery efforts for a week. Though no men­tion is made of this in the doc­u­men­tary (nor if Busce­mi him­self suf­fered in ill health effects), he clear­ly is in a posi­tion to help speak out about such an issue.

  1. It is sad in light of such a tragedy that I feel the need to have to include this but I want to be clear that I am not some con­spir­a­cy the­o­rist nor am I look­ing for some­thing to com­plain about the Bush admin­is­tra­tion. This just strikes me as a very real and ongo­ing prob­lem asso­ci­at­ed with the Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001 ter­ror­ist attacks. []

Free by Chris Anderson

In the pro­logue, Ander­son men­tions that his research showed two camps: those above thir­ty who remain skep­ti­cal of any­thing labeled “free” and those under thir­ty who think any­thing dig­i­tal is gen­er­al­ly free. This age def­i­n­i­tion has noth­ing to do with Tim Leary and every­thing to do with the tim­ing of the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion. It was my gen­er­a­tion that real­ly took the inter­nets from a academic/ gov­ern­ment exper­i­ment to the infor­ma­tion behe­moth that we know it as. These are the peo­ple that helped to cre­ate the new free and they watched and learned as oth­ers toyed with the idea. My posi­tion of “free is great so long as it pays” makes sense. I became an adult around this notion. My wife and I both have careers now that our users/patients don’t pay for direct­ly but are added on to make our employ­ers of greater val­ue to the cus­tomers.

So, it is from this per­spec­tive that I can say that many (most, even) of the core points in Free: The Future of a Rad­i­cal Price by Chris Ander­son are absolute­ly cru­cial to busi­ness. Espe­cial­ly small busi­ness­es and arti­sans, where nim­ble­ness is a advan­tage to be lever­aged. But still yet it is one that must be reck­og­nized by old, large media such as enter­tain­ment and news if they are to flour­ish going for­ward1.

emFree: The Future of a Radical Price/em by Chris Anderson (Hyperion)
Free: The Future of a Rad­i­cal Price by Chris Ander­son (Hype­r­i­on)

Free as a Concept

I think that there are many small con­cepts and exam­ples that make the entire book worth­while for most any­one. But I want to focus on a cou­ple:

First, the idea of exam­in­ing what is abun­dant and scarce to you and lever­ag­ing those. It is equal­ly impor­tant to real­ize that what is abun­dant or scarce changes over time and this is why busi­ness of old long since died off. Some­times a com­mod­i­ty may not be tru­ly free, but so cheap as to not make meter­ing it worth one’s time. Using some­thing like this to draw in cus­tomers and then get­ting mon­ey out of them (or even a select few, as I’ll get to momen­tar­i­ly) is a key part of mak­ing a busi­ness on Free.

Sec­ond­ly, if we are not going to mea­sure some­thing because it is free or near­ly free, we can in fact being to waste this sort of com­mod­i­ty. When there is such and abun­dance of a com­mod­i­ty that we can afford to throw count­less num­bers into our busi­ness, some entire­ly new ideas can arise. Ander­son pro­vides many exam­ples but suf­fice it to say that essen­tial­ly every­thing we do on a com­put­er these days would have once con­sid­ered to be a friv­o­lous use of pre­cious resources. Thomas Frei­d­man’s forces that flat­tened the world indeed have changed the eco­nom­ic land­scape as well (ref. The World Is Flat).

And it is impor­tant to con­sid­er scale. Rather than giv­ing away a free sam­ple to sell most of your prod­uct, think about giv­ing away the vast major­i­ty of your work in order to scale up to many, many cus­tomers. You may only be sell­ing some­thing to a few per­cent of your total cus­tomers; with the vast major­i­ty being free­load­ers. But if that total base is large and your work costs lit­tle to make — or, more like­ly, costs lit­tle to repro­duce — the busi­ness mod­el becomes sol­id.

Last­ly, make no mis­take: free is tough to com­pete with. So much, it is real­ly an entire­ly dif­fer­ent mar­ket all togeth­er. From Ander­son:

So from the con­sumer’s per­spec­tive, there is a huge dif­fer­ence between cheap and free. Give a prod­uct away and it can go viral. Charge a sin­gle cent for it and you’re in an entire­ly dif­fer­ent busi­ness, one of claw­ing and scratch­ing for every cus­tomer. The truth is that zero is one mar­ket and any oth­er price is anoth­er. In many cas­es, that’s the dif­fer­ence between a great mar­ket and none at all.

Cer­tain­ly, this sort of pric­ing psy­chol­o­gy can be applied either way. But in terms of cre­at­ing a large, new mar­ket almost overnight; noth­ing com­pares to free.

Free as a Book

Free is real­ly a sequel to — or, more accu­rate­ly, the log­i­cal con­clu­sion to — Ander­son­’s first book The Long Tail (which I pre­vi­ous­ly reviewed). I feel con­fi­dent that Ander­son, too, sees it this way. I think he cov­ers the key con­cepts of that book here as well in order to pro­vide con­text. Actu­al­ly, a siz­able por­tion of this book is con­text: his­to­ry of free as a price and mar­ket­ing scheme and how the dig­i­tal age has rev­o­lu­tion­ized its appli­ca­tion. There is also a num­ber of exam­ples of the appli­ca­tion of Free in real-world busi­ness­es and cul­ture. What there isn’t much of is spec­u­la­tion on the future of Free. Ander­son spares us from telling us how Free will change the world and spends most of his time explain­ing what effect it has already had.

Fur­ther­ing the case for Free as the son of The Long Tail, one of key ideas in Ander­son­’s first book which I point­ed out was the impor­tance of fil­ters in mak­ing long tail busi­ness­es pos­si­ble. Freeco­nom­ics takes the oth­er side of this coin by assum­ing the long tail as com­mod­i­ty and the fil­ter­ing as the scarci­ty; there­fore mak­ing that again the key to suc­cess.

Ander­son makes a sol­id case in oth­er aspects of free, as well. At least as sol­id as one can to mea­sure some­thing that is inher­ent­ly unmea­sur­able. After all, larg­er num­bers times zero are still zero. He uses a few rough cal­cu­la­tions to show a sense of scale. Some have wrong­ly crit­i­cized the accu­ra­cy of these, but as an engi­neer I see the val­ue in these “back of the enve­lope” esti­mates to deter­mine at least the mag­ni­tude of the issue, if not the pre­cise val­ue. Addi­tion­al­ly, he uses numer­ous exam­ples of how indi­vid­u­als and com­pa­nies apply free to make mon­ey and earn rep­u­ta­tion and atten­tion (which can, with some cre­ativ­i­ty, gen­er­al­ly be turned into mon­ey). He even has an appen­dix of sorts on apply­ing the con­cept of “Freemi­um2;” that is, giv­ing away part of the busi­ness but charg­ing for a pre­mi­um ver­sion for a select few (gen­er­al­ly 5–10% of the users). Clear­ly, this is where Ander­son sees the great­est oppor­tu­ni­ty from a busi­ness per­spec­tive.

Cer­tain­ly some of Ander­son­’s exam­ples are more con­vinc­ing than oth­ers. How­ev­er, no exam­ple of flour­ish­ing from giv­ing away prod­ucts is strong than that of Google. Just gawk at the raw scale of a com­pa­ny that gives away essen­tial­ly every ounce of inno­va­tion it gen­er­ates:

This has worked amaz­ing­ly well. Today, ten years after its found­ing, Google is a $20 bil­lion com­pa­ny, mak­ing more in prof­it (more than $4 bil­lion in 2008) than all of Amer­i­ca’s air­lines and car com­pa­nies com­bined (okay, that may not be say­ing much these days!).

Despite Ander­son­’s punch­line at the expense of some of Amer­i­ca’s last-cen­tu­ry indus­tries, I think in fact that this does say some­thing quite sub­stan­tial. Google real­ized that it had a num­ber of com­modi­ties on hand from its search busi­ness: stor­age, band­width, com­put­er horse­pow­er; and saw to take advan­tage of it in any­way pos­si­ble to extend its reach. Though many of its inno­va­tions were, in real­i­ty, acqui­si­tions: YouTube, Write­ly (aka Google Docs), etc.; it has lever­aged “cloud com­put­ing” to get its adver­tis­ing cash cow in front of more and more peo­ple. And when is the last time you paid a bill to Google3.

Per­son­al­ly, I felt as though much of Free was tan­gen­tial to the any argu­ment of how to apply free tac­tics to a mod­ern busi­ness. Most the chap­ters wan­der about in a very con­ver­sa­tion­al style. The core of the book could cer­tain­ly be boiled down into some­thing much short­er4. Though some of these his­tor­i­cal and eco­nom­ic tan­gents are inter­est­ing, they don’t do much to under­score the argu­ment that free is impor­tant to busi­ness (not that that is the only pur­pose of the book, of course, but it is the title after all). Though Ander­son attempts to cre­ate a tax­on­o­my of free in busi­ness, it nev­er real­ly gels as to where var­i­ous busi­ness­es fit in, oth­er than the cat­e­go­ry of freemi­um; which, as pre­vi­ous­ly men­tioned, Ander­son goes into great depth into and even sub-cat­e­go­rizes suc­cess­ful appli­ca­tions there-of.

I also would have liked to see more con­crete evi­dence of Ander­son­’s argu­ment that free is some­thing of a nat­ur­al law in eco­nom­ics. I think that this is a key argu­ment in con­vinc­ing last-cen­tu­ry busi­ness that free is indeed the price of the future. More accu­rate­ly, I sup­pose, that chang­ing their busi­ness mod­el to giv­ing away some­thing that used to be a prof­it source in order to see rev­enue else­where. I sus­pect there is valid­i­ty to this “free is like grav­i­ty” the­o­ry, but this book leaves me want­i­ng some more sound evi­dence one way or the oth­er.

This book has gen­er­at­ed some chat­ter and even con­tro­ver­sy online5. Oth­er than to acknowl­edge their exis­tence, I don’t want to dwell on that. The book does­n’t exist in a vac­u­um but I’ll leave that sort of thing to oth­ers. Main­ly because most of that has long since blown over by the time I was able to get around to fin­ish­ing the text!

Free: The Future of a Rad­i­cal Price by Chris Ander­son on Hype­r­i­on books is avail­able (for pay, in a spiffy bound edi­tion) at most book sell­ers. True to his word regard­ing the research project nature of his book, it is also avail­able free in ebook and audio down­loads (with updat­ed text).

  1. I do not believe for one sec­ond that enter­tain­ment or news are going way. Rather, if the old com­pa­nies in these areas are to stay around instead of be replaced, they are going have embrace Free. []
  2. I should note that I believe the word Freemi­um to imply the oppo­site of what is intend­ed. It only makes sense in con­text of label­ing a busi­ness plan and not any­thing from the con­sumer’s per­spec­tive. It is intend­ed to rep­re­sent a solu­tion that includes both a free and a pre­mi­um (for pay) option. How­ev­er, from the con­sumer’s per­spec­tive, one would choose either free or pre­mi­um and not select some hybrid, port­man­teau solu­tion. []
  3. Unless, of course, you buy Google ads. Then you have the ben­e­fit of know­ing you have some the best tar­get­ed ads ever cre­at­ed. Ulti­mate­ly, per­fect adver­tis­ing is just infor­ma­tion; and Google is clos­est any­one has ever come to deliv­er­ing paid-for infor­ma­tion on a large scale. []
  4. Which of course Ander­son did in a Wired arti­cle last year and will even do with a cus­tom tai­lored mes­sage if you hire him for a speak­ing engage­ment. []
  5. See the Wikipedia con­tro­ver­sy, Glad­well’s scathing review and respons­es to it, as well as Ander­son­’s cranky inter­view with Speigel. []