Sunday, May 29, 2005

Science Fiction that shaped my childhood

Whenever I start getting to know people, at some point the issue of my love of Science Fiction and Fantasy always comes up at some point. Apparently I don't exactly look like someone you'd expect to be a fan of the genre, whatever that means, Anyway, I grew up on the genre, and dozens of others. A large chunk of my childhood was spent reading everything I could possibly get my hands on. I stuck with SF for several reasons, among them being that I have a heavily overdeveloped imagination and a tendency to ask questions. The strength of the genre is its ability to create new worlds from scratch and also to ask deeply fundamental questions about this one. A great science fiction story is one that does both. So, without ado, the SF books that influenced me as a kid. As a tribute to 'High Fidelity' which I rewatched this weekend, I'll make it a top 5 list.

Incidentally, as soon as I made this list, I thought about other books that have fair claim to being on this list. I guess I'll have to do another one at some point.

1. Isaac Asimov's 'The Caves of Steel'

The Caves of Steel

For those of you who have no idea who Asimov is, shame on you. He is easily one of the greatest SF and general science writers of all time. If it weren't for him, I would probably have ended up as a history major instead of a physicist. He's also the only stranger whose death I can honestly say I was affected by. The recent 'I Robot' movie was an entertaining perversion of his most enduring creation, the three laws of robotics. One of these days, you guys will get a post solely dedicated to him, but for now, I'll stick to the script.

When people talk about his works, They usually consider the 'Foundation' books or his Robot stories to be his best work. Me, I've always been partial to the Elijah Bailey and Daneel Olivaw books, perhaps because they combine good detective stories with very effective commentary on race. This is the first in the series.

In Asimov's fictional future, humanity is split up into 'Earthers', human beings bound to the planet earth, and 'Spacers', a spacefaring group who have longer lives and access to better technology, like robots. Urbanization plus population growth means that most earthers live in ultra large cities from which the book derives its name.

One of the main characters, Elijah Bailey, is an earther police officer who hates spacers and robots equally. When a high ranking spacer is murdered, he gets assigned to the case. Because of the sensitivity if this case, however, the spacers insist he take along a robot partner, Daneel Olivaw, a robot made in the image of the dead man. The rest of the book is part detective story, as they track down the murderer, and partly about the nature of prejudice, as Elijah is forced to confront his feelings, and those of general Earther society, about both Spacers and robots. To a certain degree, the two of them even bond and form a sort of friendship.

2. Ursula K. LeGuin's 'A Wizard of Earthsea'

A Wizard of Earthsea

Ursula Leguin's most beloved series. I still remember the first time I read this book. Actually, it was just the first chapter. It was part of an anthology of SF short stories that a girl I liked 'liberated' from her parents bookshelf for me (sidenote, I wonder what happened to her?). I remember reading it over and over, instantly drawn in by the images her words created.

Oh, for the record, I will not be discussing the Scifi channel's whitewashed and destroyed show that was supposedly based on this book. Ursula said it better than I ever could and I really don't need to get agitated today.

The basic story has to do with the growth of the main character, Sparrowhawk. Through him, we learn valuable life lessons. Among them, that power is only to be used in moderation, unless the situation demands it and that in all people there exists both the good and the bad, and they are both necessary to balance each other out. The other great thing about this book, which was apparently missed by a lot of people, was the fact that Sparrowhawk and his people weren't white. As a woman in the genre, Ursula became sensitive to the fact that a lot of science fiction was little more than a space for the heroic white male power fantasy. In response, she made her protagonist Native American as her way of challenging that perception (BTW, the entire idea of white male power fantasies in SF and comic books is one I shall revisit sometime soon).

3. Arthur C. Clarke's 'Rendezvous with Rama'

Rendezvous with Rama

Arthur C. Clarke, allegedly the R-Kelly/Michael Jackson of SF writers (along with Piers Anthony, if the rumors are true). This is the man who invented the concept of the geosynchronous satellite. One of the things that always interested me about him was the fact that he was actually a practicing physicist for a large part of his life and it tended to show in the small scientific details in his books.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking, why not '2001'? Why 'Rama', which isn't anywhrer near as well known? Simple. This is my list and as a kid I enjoyed reading Rendevous with Rama far more than I enjoyed 2001 which, in my opinion, has a tendency to be overrated because of the brilliant Kubrick movie. Maybe, if Morgan Freeman gets his way and the Rama movie gets made it'll finally get the respect it deserves.

The story behind it is fairly simple. In the near future a cylindrical object enters our solar system. After it becomes obvious that there is nothing natural about it, a team if investigators are sent into space to explore it and figure out what its doing here. Once they get there, they find that its hollow and contains a small city. The rest of the book is mainly about their attempts to figure out the purpose of Rama, as they decide to call it.

What made this book great for me was the fact that it seamlessly merged 'hard' science with good storytelling without compromising either. It was also one of the first books I read to step away from the paradigm of the humanoid alien and seriously allow for the possibility that life could exist in forms that we can't possibly imagine. While this also holds true for his 2001 books, I always preferred the execution in these better.

4. Frank Herbert's ''


Frank Herbert was a genius. There is little more to it than that. In the 'Dune' books, he created a huge, painskaingly detained world and then used it to tell great stories while meditating on a wide range of issues including religion, politics and ecology. I could probably ramble on about his work for hours if given a chance. The books were incredibly dense in terms of themes explored and yet they were entertaining enough to spawn movies, spinoff books and video games. Honestly, I still don't remember if I saw the movie first or read the book. It really doesn't matter either way. Both hold a very special place in my childhood.

5. Douglas Adams' 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

What can I possibly say about these books that will do them justice. Douglas Adams still remains, in my mind, one of the funniest human beings to ever pick up a pen. Actually, I blame my sometimes quirky sense of humor squarely on him. Since the movie just came out, you probably don't really need me to explain the basic premise behind the story to you. I'll just say that this book was responsible for many hours of enjoyment for me as a kid. I always related to Arthur Dent, the person who never quite fit in anywhere. Watching him grow and learn was a great thing for me.

Incidentally, it holds a very special place for me because of a link to the very first girl to break my heart. Long story but basically we took turns checking it out of the school library and spent long hours talking about it (I wasn't lying when I said I like geeks. Always have)

Anyway, thus concludes my list. Considering what else could have been on this list, I'll probably have to make another one soon.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Random musings

'Be' Cover

1. I've been listening to Common's new album 'Be' almost exclusively since it was released on Tuesday. In my opinion its an early candidate for album of the year. Granted, at 11 tracks its not the longest CD you'll ever hear but every track is quality. From what I hear its also shaping up to be his highest selling album to date. I'm really happy for him, Especially after the violently negative reception his last album 'Electric Circus' received. Personally I liked Electric Circus, still do. The exploratory nature of its production really turned people off though, unfortunately. Ironically, most of the same people loved Andre 3000's 'The Love Below'. I can't explain it.

2. Has everyone else heard R.Kelly's latest multi-part auditory abortion? Otherwise known as 'In the Closet parts 1-3' these songs are so horrifically bad it feels like one of those really bad science fiction movies that were the staple of 'Mystery Science Theater 3000'. Its so incredibly horrible that you find yourself watching it in amazement that an actual thinking person came up with this and had the bravery to release it. From the generally positive reaction that this, and other crappy R-Kelly songs have received, I believe that he should consider giving up his singing career (well, that he should do anyway for the sake of humanity) and become a cult leader. If he can convince people that putting bad soap opera scripts to music is an act of genius, what else can he get them to do? Honestly I wish I had that gift. I'd use it to put together a harem.

3. Two of my favorite TV shows are not being renewed. The Sly Stallone reality boxing show 'The Contender' and UPN first decent prime time drama 'Kevin Hill'. For those of you who missed both if these, you missed out. Especially The Contender, which, along with Spike TV's 'The Ultimate Fighter' actually made me regularly watch reality TV. At least 'The 4400' is coming back. For those of you who haven't seen it, think 'Lost' but better.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Know your audience

A while back, Swann said I should write about my views on dating/relationships. She seems to think that they are unusually wise. Personally they strike me as little more than good common sense. Either way, I have some time on my hands so I figured I'd throw something together. Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, here goes.

I will be starting with a very simple but often ignored rule. Know thyself. Too many times I have seen men and women go after people who were obviously wrong for them because they couldn't be honest with themselves about who they were and what they wanted. For instance, I am a geek. I'm a physics grad student who loves science in general. I read comic books, read a lot of old and new literature, don't really listen to a lot of commercial hip-hop or R&B and love anime and cartoons in general. While I may have a slight obsession with martial arts in general, I'm not a particularly aggressive or violent person. Generally I try to treat people with respect until they give me a reason to do otherwise. I posses very few, if any, of the characteristics of the 'thug' or 'baller' types. Therefore, obviously, women who are looking for overly aggressive men to control their lives, or men who will lavish large sums of money on them aren't looking for me. It would be a waste of my time to even try talking to them. Plus, even assuming they would talk to me, how long would the conversation last before I would be willing to give up a vital organ to get them to shut up? I like discourse. I like my women intelligent, knowledgeable about a wide range of things and willing to laugh at themselves and the world around them. Therefore if I decided to hang out in places where the thugs and ballers, or, far more likely, people pretending to be them, go to look for women what are the chances I would find someone I'd actually be attracted to?

If I decided to invest my time in those women, I'd probably manage a series of horrible relationships that would end in them leaving me for someone who fits their ideals better. I'd probably end up bitter at women and believing that they are all gold diggers or want thugs. The real truth would be that I'm just not 'cool'. I never have been and honestly I have no desire to be. I would have been playing in a world I have no place in.

There, of course is the part people refuse to accept. You can choose to live like one of the 'cool' people. If you choose not to, that's not your world. Be honest with yourself about who you are and then go looking for someone who compliments that person. I love female geeks. We generally get along really well and I don't have to pretend to be someone I'm not.

So, children, the moral of this slightly confused story is, learn to be you, then go looking for someone who you are attracted to, who is attracted to the true you. Regardless of whether or not it works out it will be a lot less stress not having to hide who you are.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Religious Zealotry vs. Science

I've been out of things for a little bit because of schoolwork so i missed the beginnings of the debate in Kansas. Thankfully Mushtaq has been talking about it and so between him and this blog by a grad student at the University of Kansas, I have bees speedily brought up to date. For those of you who are similarly clueless, I'll summarize. Basically, the state Board of Education in Kansas is holding hearings about whether or not to teach Intelligent Design "theory" (and I use that word extremely loosely) beside evolution in classrooms. Not being satisfied with that, they are also trying to get the school board's definition of science changed. They want to omit the part about science looking for natural explanations to phenomena so they can tie religion in to every aspect of science education. Their reasons for doing so are spelled out here.

For now, I'll ignore the larger implications of what they are doing and focus on why Intelligent Design is not a valid scientific theory and evolution is. There seems to be some confusion over the use of the word 'theory' so I'll start there. In regular english use, a theory is merely a reasonable idea. In order for an idea to qualify as a scientific theory, it must endure rigorous and ongoing challenges to its validity and must be capable of explaining all the available data as well as predicting any new data that appears on the same topic. In other words evolution is a widely accepted theory because it provides a coherent and testable explanation for everything we currently know about the history of life on earth. Certain parts of the theory are still being refined but those are the specifics. The general framework is accepted by the majority of scientists as being valid. If tomorrow we find evidence that plainly contradicts evolution, that will be the end of it and they'll start looking for a new theory that incorporates everything we now know.
Intelligent Design doesn't really explain anything. Ignoring the fact that its just a way to backdoor creationism into schools, the basic idea behind it is that nature is too complex to have come into being on its own so it must have been created. No real mention is made of the creator(s), their origin and the means by which creation took place. This 'theory' can never be tested because all contradicting data can also be ascribed to the same intelligent designer, automatically rendering it useless as a scientific theory. If there is no possible way to prove it false it can't be a scientific theory. Its defenders ignore the mountains of evidence supporting evolution and instead nitpick at areas that are still being investigated as proof that the entire theory is flawed. When they're not doing that, they make ridiculously incoherent and obviously uninformed arguments that seriously call into question their ability to think rationally about anything.

Now, lets return to the larger issue behind this, the attack on naturalism. One of the core beliefs of the scientific method is that nature follows specific rules and that we can deduce these rules by observing nature without invoking any other outside powers. The Universe, whether it was created by god or randomly came into being, follows these rules. The fact that you are sitting at a computer reading this and didn't need to utter a prayer or make a sacrifice in order to get it to work is a fairly convincing argument for this point of view. Its not that we don't believe in god, most scientists I've met have some kind of spiritual faith. Its just that we don't consider ourselves in the business of proving or disproving god's existence. Nothing about the rules of nature confirms or denies the existence of god(s). You can believe or not, just don't expect help from us either way. It wouldn't be a belief if you could prove it.
Anyway, religious zealots hate naturalism because it provides an explanation for the world that doesn't necessarily require a holy man or holy book, thus threatening their power. They want to be the ones with all the answers and if that means dismantling centuries of human scientific progress, so be it.

Personally, the people I really feel sorry for are the kids who are going to have their heads filled with all this nonsense. Someday they'll have to deal with the real world. By choosing religious dogma over reality, their parents will be doing them a disservice too great for me to properly describe. Plus, if this spreads you might as well move all science related institutions overseas because your kids will be too stupid and uninformed to man them. So either bring us here or move them to our homes and cut down on airfare. Might I suggest putting a nanotechnology R&D lab in Ghana, my parents will be glad to see me move home and I will no longer have to deal with the winter.

Monday, May 09, 2005

The insomnia comic book post

My last final is tomorrow and I'm having a hard time going to sleep. At the same time, I've studied so much for this thing that my brain is about to start leaking out of my ear. Since I have nothing else to do and I'm already seated behind the computer, I figured I'd do some blogging. Since this past Saturday was free comic book day, I figured I'd let you guys know what I have been reading these days.
As you will probably notice, a lot of these are written by black writers or feature black characters. This is partially due to the fact that the writing is good and partially because I figure if I have the time to complain about the lack of representation in comics, I can put my money where my mouth is and support well written black comics. Plus I'm getting tired of the culture of sensationalism that the big two comic companies are working from these days so I'm going further afield in search of good writing and decent art. Anyway, without further ado, here is the list.

Black Panther

Black Panther #1

I was huge fan of Christopher Priest's remarkable run on Black Panther and was really unhappy when the book got cancelled. I was livid when the series he moved on to, The Crew, was cancelled without ever getting off the ground. But that's a story for another day.

The new relaunch of the Black Panther comic is being written by Reggie Hudlin, director of House Party and Boomerang as well as co-writer of the incredibly funny Birth Of A Nation. Unsurprisingly, he's proving to be one hell of a writer. So far, I have been loving every issue of the new 'Panther' and I've even managed to turn a couple of people unto the book.

For those of you who are unaware of the story behind the Black Panther, he is the monarch of Wakanda, a fictitious African country that also happens to be the most developed nation on the planet. He has no actual superhuman abilities of his own, a special herb gives him heightened strength and senses but he is mostly a superbly trained human being with access to an arsenal of the most technologically advanced equipment on the planet. Basically, Imagine a black Batman with significantly greater resources at his disposal and you'll get an idea of the potential of the character. When he was first introduced into the Marvel Universe he hunted down and captured the Fantastic Four as a test. Of course, immediately after that he spent the majority of his comic book time as a glorified cheerleader for the Avengers until Priest brought him back to life as a credible character who was always several steps ahead of his enemies. Reggie's work seems to be continuing very much in this direction and if definitely worth picking up if you're a comic fan.

Incidentally, for those interested in Priest's excellent run on the character, there are two trade paperbacks available that I highly recommend. This and this.


Angeltown #5

This book is the latest crime series by novelist Gary Phillips. I was actually unfamiliar with his work until I started reading rave reviews for this series. Which is sad because I'm a huge fan of crime novels. He's pretty high up on my summer reading list now.

Anyway, back to the book. Its a modern day noir-ish detective story about a private detective trying to track down a professional basketball player accused of murdering his white ex-wife (I wonder where the idea for that could have come from)
Of course, nothing is what it seems and this case ends up attracting the attention of people high up on both sides of the law leaving our detective to stay alive long enough to figure out the truth and find his man while avoiding a lesbian bounty hunter trying to snatch up the same target. Of course there's a huge amount of sex, violence and strong language, all staples of the genre. If you like crime stories you'll probably like this one. Its well paced and really well written


Ocean #1

I'm a huge Warren Ellis fan. I have been since Transmetropolitan, which, I believe, is one of the best critiques of the modern media I have encountered in a work of fiction. Plus the main character uses a weapon called a 'bowel disrupter' on people. Some people i know find him too cynical and suspicious of people in authority. Personally, I share a lot of his misgivings in those areas so I tend to agree with his stuff. Plus I enjoy his somewhat twisted sense of humor.

Ocean is a straightforward science fiction thriller about a UN weapons inspector who gets called to one of the moons of Jupiter when an exploration crew finds the cryogenically preserved citizens of an alien race and their weapons. Of course, it just happens that the only other people in the area are he crew of a weapons research station belonging to one of the largest corporations in the known world. This being an Ellis book, the company is evil and the manager of the station is insane. Plus the aliens might wake up at any minuye and the only thing we know about them is that they are prone to violence and have bigger guns than we do. It's funny, violent and very thoughtful in parts. Pretty much what I expect from him. Plus, as usual, he provides a diverse cast of characters and even throws in a black male lead. That's actually the other thing I really like about him. He creates incredibly diverse worlds and makes them seem perfectly natural, as opposed to a lot of writers who toss in one non-white character and them write them as a token.

Cannon Busters

Papa Midnight #2

This I picked up almost on a whim this weekend. The creator of the series, Lesean Thomas, is apparently one of the new generation of black comicbook artists and writers. His art seems to be very anime/manga inspired, which is not that unusual these days. i have a teenage cousin who also wants to become a comic book artist and also draws heavily from the same sources.

The book itself is set in a magic - meets - technology style world and apparently draws heavily on The Wizard of Oz for its story about a young robot and her friends who are on a quest. So far, we've just been introduced to the world and our main character when all hell breaks loose. The art in this issue is very well put together. I hope the story lives up to it. For now, it gets three issues to prove itself to me.

Papa Midnight

Papa Midnight #2

Like Angeltown, this book is also being written by a novelist who has decided to try his hands at comic books. In this case, Mat Johnson gets to write the origin of Papa Midnite, a character from the Hellblazer comic book series and the movie Constantine.

Papa Midnite is a nightclub owner in New York who serves both humans and supernatural beings. In the movie he maintains a strict neutrality while in the comics he is somewhat of a crime lord and definitely has an agenda of his own. Mat Johnson creates a story rooted in Akan mythology and the history of slaves in New York to put together a very interesting tale of Midnite's origin and his true purpose. I'm biased towards this book since my father's side of the family are Akan(Ashanti and Akyem for those who are interested) and there is obviously a lot of attention put into getting certain aspects of the culture and mythology right. That aside, its a really enjoyable read that I would recommend to anyone.

Anyway, thats enough nerdy behavior for one day. I'm going to bed now. Wish me luck tomorrow.