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Book Review: Who? by Algis Budrys

January 22, 2014 3 comments

A man with a metal arm and head smokes a cigarette while sitting pensievely at a desk.Summary:
In an alternate late 20th century, the Allies are still at a cold war with the Soviets.  The Allies’ best scientist, Martino, is working on a secret project called K-88 when there is an explosion. The first rescuers to him are Soviet.  The norm is for Allied prisoners to ultimately be returned across the line.  But the Soviets claim that Martino’s skull and arm were badly damaged and return him with a metal, robotic head and arm.  Is this man really Martino, or is he a Soviet plant?

Review:
I was excited to read this book because the idea of a transhumanist/cyborg American made that way by the Soviets has a James Bond like appeal.  Unfortunately, it feels a bit more dated than I was anticipating, as well as compared to other older scifi, and doesn’t fully address some questions it raises.

Immediately, there are a couple of plot holes that aren’t addressed until close to the end of the book, which made it a bit frustrating to read.  First, why did the Allies put their best scientist in a lab on the border with the Soviets? The answer to this, given at the end of the book, is pretty flimsy, and only works if you are willing to believe the Allies are very stupid.  Second, it makes sense that they can’t verify Martino’s identity with his fingerprints, because the Soviets could have taken off his remaining arm and put it on someone else.  However, why can’t they verify who he is with DNA? Presumably, he has some living relatives somewhere they could compare to. DNA was discovered in the 1860s (source) so to never even address why they don’t use it is a bit bizarre.  The book mentions toward the end that Martino’s parents and uncle are dead, but you can conduct kinship tests using dead bodies.  It still baffles me that the government in the book didn’t simply dig up Martino’s father and run a DNA test.  Even if DNA testing wasn’t widely known of when the book was published, one would hope a scifi writer could see its future implications, imagine the applicability, and address the scenario.  The fact that DNA wasn’t addressed at all, and Martino’s place near the Soviet border wasn’t satisfactorily addressed really removed a lot of the intensity and interest one should feel from the situation.

Another way Budrys showed a lack of imagination for the future is in the strict gender roles and lack of women in the military or the sciences in the future he has envisioned.  Women are only seen in the book in strict 1950s gender roles. As wives and mothers and not once in the military or in the sciences.  People in the sciences are referred to as the “men” not even leaving room for the idea of a woman in science.  I know this is a symptom of the times, but I also know that more progressive and forward-thinking scifi was written in the same decade.  It was a bit jarring to me to read a scifi that excluded women so much, when I’m so used to women being present, at least nominally, in scifi.

All of that said, the writing of individual scenes was quite lovely.  Budrys evokes setting and tensity well.  I particularly enjoyed the scene of Maybe-Martino running through the streets of New York City, which reminded me of an old noir film.  Budrys also shows a good understanding of what it is like for people who are incredibly highly intelligent.  He writes Martino at a young age as both brilliant in science but also dumb in interpersonal relations.  The fact that he got this and demonstrated it in the 1950s is to be commended.  There is also some solid commentary on the American education system and a desire for it to encourage more independent thought.

Look–these guys aren’t morons. They’re pretty damned bright, or they wouldn’t be here. But the only way they’ve ever been taught to learn something is to memorize it. If you throw a lot of new stuff at them in a hurry, they’ll still memorize it–but they haven’t got time to think. (loc 9163)

Overall, this is an interesting concept that wasn’t fully fleshed out nor the possible weaknesses fully addressed.  It is definitely a scifi of its time, with its hyper-focus on the Soviets and the Cold War that could almost feel kitschy today.  A short read with an interesting premise, albeit a lack of female scientists, soldiers, or government workers.  Recommended to scifi fans who enjoy some old-fashioned red scare in their reads and don’t need the science to be perfect.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: Wolf Hunt: The Burning Ages by Sebastian P. Breit (series, #1)

Wolf standing in front of Nazi flag.Summary:
It’s the future, and the world is in another semi-cold war between NATO and BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China).  A NATO group of British, American, and German naval ships is being sent to Brazil on a mission, but part-way there they are all zapped back in time to 1940.  With the chance to change history for the better, what will they decide to do?

Review:
I first want to point out that Breit is German and wrote this in English himself; it is not a translation.  I have to say that I wonder why he made that choice as the plot certainly seems to have more of a European than an American appeal, but I am impressed at his effort to write in his second language.

The summary of the book makes the plot sound fast-paced, but in fact it is actually distressingly slow-moving.  It takes about 1/3 of the book for the all-important time-traveling event to happen.  I spent the whole first part of the book just waiting and wondering when it was going to happen, because once the basic politics of the world and character traits were set up, it’s just a waiting game.  The naval mumbo-jumbo filling up the rest of the space just wasn’t necessary.  This issue carries on throughout the book with half of the sailors spending a solid amount of their time stranded on an island, for instance.  Since this is marketed as a fast-paced historical thriller, perhaps somewhat like the style of The Da Vinci Code it quite simply needs to move along faster.  Intense naval specifics and codes are not necessary.  Fast-moving plot is.

Breit also needs to invest in a British and American editor each, as the British and American characters say and do things that are just flat-out wrong in British and American English respectively.  One that really slapped me across the face is that one of the characters is from Boston, but everyone refers to him as a “Bostoner.”  People from Boston are called “Bostonians.”  I have never once in my life heard anyone say “Bostoner,” and I live in Boston.  Another example is at one point one of the Americans reads another American’s birthdate from off an id and says it the European way “11 September 2001,” instead of the American way “September 11th, 2001.”  This is one of those instances where the author needs to have his facts straight in order for the story to be believable.  Nothing makes me not believe a character is American quite like having him get a bunch of American English wrong.

Additionally, as a woman and an author, the way the female characters are handled is distressing to me.  Just one example is that a bunch of the stranded female sailors are attacked on the island by some of the locals in an attempt at rape.  These women who had the exact same training as their male counter-parts are apparently completely incapable of saving themselves, but instead have to be rescued by their male comrades.  But it gets worse.  Later when the captain of the ship is relating the event to another man, he asks if the women were alright.  The captain responds by saying that the doctor said they were fine.  The doctor.  Apparently nobody bothered to ask these women if they were raped (HINT: I’m pretty sure women can tell if they’ve been raped or not).  Plus no one seems to care that these women are clearly not going to be emotionally ok after almost getting raped, and not once do any of the female characters who were attacked say anything about it with their own voices. This is just completely inexcusable.  It’s a removal of women’s voices from ourselves, and it’s insulting to a female reader.

There’s the issue of European bias expressed through the American characters.  For instance, one American character expresses shame at how Americans only speak one language.  First of all, the rate of bilingualism in the US is actually rising, so following the arc of the future, there should be more bilingual Americans, not less.  Second, I’ve never once heard an American express woe in an all-encompassing way like that by saying something like “It’s so sad Americans aren’t bilingual.”  People say, “I wish I was fluent in another language,” or “I wish I was fluent in Japanese,” but they just don’t put it that way.  That whole paragraph sounded like a European using an American character as a puppet to say what Europeans think of Americans.  Yeesh.

I also have problems with the German characters though.  A bunch of them express the desire to stop the Holocaust not to save lives but to save the German people from harboring the shame and guilt for generations to come.  Um, what?  That’s your concern oh time-traveling Germans?  Having been to Germany myself on a student exchange and visited Dachau, etc… I can say that I have a hard time imagining any of the kids my age at the time (15ish in the early 2000’s) focusing in on that as opposed to stopping a bad thing from happening because it’s evil and wrong.  I can only imagine that generations even further along would be even more focused in on stopping a genocide as opposed to saving some broad idea of German honor.  It’d be like having a time-traveling modern American decide to stop the Trail of Tears to save us from shame as opposed to doing it to save innocent Cherokees.  The whole thought just makes my brain hurt.

To sum up, Breit shows ability as a writer that needs to be worked on and honed.  I’d recommend either getting a good editor who can handle both British and American English or switching to writing in German.  He also needs to work on tightening up his plot.  Normally I’d say, nice first effort keep trying, but due to the opinions and biases and presentation of women present in this first attempt, I’m afraid I can’t say that.  It’s readable, but why would you want to read it anyway?

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Ebook from author in exchange for my honest review

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Movie Review: The Human Centipede: First Sequence (2009)

October 26, 2010 4 comments

View of people and limbs through a glass.Summary:
Two American girls on a road trip through Europe get a flat tire late at night in Germany.  They walk to find help, and stumble upon the residence of Dr. Heiter, a first-class surgeon who separates Siamese twins.  He promptly kidnaps them, along with an unfortunate Japanese tourist, and announces to them that they will become part of a first-time experiment.  He will fuse them together mouth to anus to create the human centipede.

Review:
This independent film mixes two great horror movie classics–kidnapping and a deranged doctor–and combines them into a great idea.  It doesn’t quite attain the heights such a great idea should have, but I can easily see it becoming a cult classic.

Dieter Laser, who plays Dr. Leiter, does an excellent job.  His facial expressions are magnificently creepy.  He is actually German, so his German is perfect, as well as his German accent.  Akihiro Kitamura’s performance was also well-done, particularly given that he mostly just gets to yell in Japanese and whimper.  The actresses who play the two girls–Ashley C. Williams and Ashlyn Yennie–have painfully annoying voices.  It was a blessing that they were the two end sections of the human centipede, because it shut them up.

Given how incredibly idiotic and annoying the two girls are in the beginning of the film, I can’t help but suspect that the writer was trying to make us feel less sympathy for them.  Possibly with the hope that it would soften the blow of the gross idea?  Maybe.

As far as the grossness inherent in three people being sewed together mouth to anus, they could have taken it much further than they did in the film.  Only bits and pieces of the operation are shown, and the human centipede wears bandages so strategically that you don’t really see much of the actual connection.  It’s more about the viewer imagining it than actually seeing it.  Although the scene where the front unit of the human centipede (the Japanese man, Katsuro) must first *ahem* use the restroom post-surgery is quite gross, it is simultaneously hilarious.  If you have a bit of a quirky sense of humor, the horror and gross-out factors of this film are greatly lessened.  In fact, I found The Fly to be much more disturbing and disgusting than this film.

Overall, if you enjoy gross-out, B-level horror films, you will have a fun time watching this movie.  It’s short, interesting, and different.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netflix

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Movie Review: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Three people weilding weapons surrounded by zombies.Summary:
Shaun is a 20-something loser with a dead-end job and a girlfriend who he only ever takes out to the local pub.  She dumps him on the eve of a zombie outbreak.  Shaun drags his job-less roommate through the streets, battling zombies in an attempt to save his mother and restore his relationship with Liz.

Review:
I couldn’t watch this movie and not compare it to Zombieland, which I watched last summer.  I honestly think that anyone wanting to compare US culture to UK culture should just watch these two films.  Shaun of the Dead takes an everyman who wants desperately to save people, but his only weapon is a cricket bat (btw, those things look like such a pussy weapon).  Shaun stumbles about the city with his line of relatives, friends, and frenemies, and they all make witty asides to each other while maintaining some sense of propriety when battling the zombies.  It’s wonderfully funny to watch, but not a point of view I, as an American, would imagine at all for a zombie apocalypse.  My pov lines up much more with Zombieland where the characters swipe trucks and double-tap the zombies with guns.  However, that’s what made Shaun of the Dead such a delightful watch, because it was a character study on top of the fun zombie scenes.  There were some jokes that fell flat for me, and I wasn’t too keen on the ending, but I know some people will enjoy the ending for precisely the reasons I disliked it.  However, Shaun of the Dead was still a delightful watch, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys humorous apocalypse or zombie tales.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netflix

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The Joy of Doing Less During the Holidays

December 22, 2009 Leave a comment

No doubt about it, the holidays are a busy time of year.  There’s presents to buy and wrap, parties to go to, people to see, travelling to do, baked goods to make, decorating to do, and more.  If you’re at all like me, it can all add up to stress.

Looking back on last week, I see that I did a lot of things that should have been fun, but I was so stressed out that the stress over-shadowed the parts I should have been enjoying.  I was constantly plotting to make it to everything (not to mention to stay awake) instead of just enjoying the moment.  I realized this yesterday, and worked to make my week this week less stressful, but thinking about it this morning, I remembered a blog post from one of my favorite zen blogs, Zen Habits, entitled The Lazy Manifesto: Do Less. Then, Do Even Less.

The jist of it is that minimalism isn’t just about what stuff you own.  Minimalism is also about doing less and enjoying it more.  I think the benefits of this are easy to see if you just think about the last time you were distracted doing one activity out of a worry to get to the next one on-time.  Now imagine if the first activity was the only one you were doing that day.  See how that works?

If you live in the moment and enjoy it to the fullest, you don’t need to hyper-schedule yourself.  Instead of going to every single holiday party, choose two for the month to go to and really go all-out at them.  Don’t be afraid to tell friends or family no, you can’t come, you don’t have time, even if you don’t have time just because you want to spend that evening at home baking cookies and watching Christmas specials.

I really like this idea of doing less, but doing it to your fullest.  I think as Americans we have the tendency to overschedule ourselves for god only knows what reason.  Maybe some lingering Puritan philosophy about idle hands being the devil’s plaything.  Regardless, there is such a thing as doing too much during the holidays, so don’t be afraid to say no and limit just how many festivities you partake in.  Partake in fewer to a more full extent.  I think you might wind up surprised at how truly festive you’ll feel.

Diet Terminology

September 29, 2009 7 comments

It’s not easy to live in America and not follow the traditional American diet.  As a vegetarian I am highly aware of this.  Therefore I tend to try to send nothing but happy thoughts to my fellow non-traditional foodies, be they gluten-free, vegan, kosher, etc….  However I kind of have a beef (pun intended) with one group of them right now.  I’m looking at you pescetarians.

It is absolutely cool that you choose to abstain from all meat but fish.  I don’t agree with it, but I respect it.  What really pisses me the fuck off though is those of you who are running around claiming to be vegetarians.  You are not vegetarians!!

From Merriam-Webster: vegetarian: one whose diet consists wholly of vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, and sometimes eggs or dairy products

Do you see fish listed in there? Are fish vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, eggs, or dairy products? No? Then you are not a vegetarian! You are a pescetarian.

Here’s Merriam-Webster to help you out again: pescetarian: one whose diet includes fish but no meat

I know. You’re sitting there going Why does this woman have such a problem with what I call myself, right?

How you label yourself directly impacts me.  It’s hard enough to be a vegetarian and have to explain to people things like it’s not appropriate to give your vegetarian niece marinara sauce cooked with meatballs in it, even though you’re not giving her meatballs there is still meat juice all up in that.  I know you face things like that yourself when you explain that you don’t eat chicken.  Pescetarians running around calling themselves vegetarians means I now repeatedly have this conversation:

Me: “I’m sorry. I can’t eat that.  It has fish in it, and I’m a vegetarian.”
Person: “Vegetarians eat fish.”
Me: “Um, no they don’t.”
Person: “But I know someone who’s vegetarian, and she totally eats fish!”

You are making things more difficult for us vegetarians.  It’d be like if I ran around calling myself vegan and gnawing down cheese.  Vegans already are a bit confusing to the public, how much more would that confuse them then? You are just wrong.   You are using the wrong word for your diet.  Even freaking Merriam-Webster says so.  I know pescetarian is a funky-sounding word and you will probably have to explain it a bit more to the public since it is not as well-known as vegetarian.  Do it anyway.  It’s what you are. If you really want to call yourself a vegetarian stop eating damn fish!