Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Sorting Hat Is a Jerk

I've posted before summarizing, briefly, why Harry Potter is terrible.  Essentially, it is this: she took a kids-book fairytale world and slowly moved it in to the realm of adult speculative fiction.  Plot elements that existed for no other reason than to entertain and light up the imagination now were expected to conform to some kind of sense, so some kind of sensical explanation was fabricated post-hoc, and those explanations fail to explain.  Partly they fail because the explanations don't really make sense if looked at, but they primarily fail because characters in earlier books behave as though they are entirely unaware of the way that their own universe is supposed to work.

Total Jerk
Let's look at one of the more iconic characters in Harry Potter, the Sorting Hat, which (who?) is charged with sorting first years in to their respective houses.

Either the Sorting Hat is objectively bad at its job, or the Sorting Hat is an actively malicious and evil entity bent on destroying the wizarding world.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Fantasy Fiction is Broken

A friend of mine recently "read" The Sad Tale of the Brother's  Grossbart.  I use scare quotes, because he put the book down in to the third chapter, it was just so abhorrently tasteless.  I respect his opinion a lot; he's the one who got me started on fantasy with recommends like the Game of Thrones.  He and I regularly trade opinions on books we've read, and he has yet to steer me wrong.

This book, he gave the much coveted award of Worst Book Ever.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: Batman Punches Criminals

Last night, I went to see The Dark Knight Rises.

I don't normally go to see movies, because most of them are simply terrible.  Typically, they offer nothing more than crude jokes and flashy special effects, with explosions and jiggly ladies.  The times when I do go to see a movie, it is because a friend has harassed me enough into seeing it, and I leave half wanting to demand my friend repay me for my wasted money and my time.  Really, my most enjoyment from movies tends to come from abusing the fans by loudly insulting it
to them.

But not so with Christopher Nolan movies.  Because Christopher Nolan makes great movies.  He makes movies with great depth, yet he conveys the entire message through the visual medium of film.  He effectively uses movies to communicate messages and stories every bit as intriguing as anything you could read in a book.

So I went to The Dark Knight Rises excited, prepped, stoked, ready to see a master do what he has mastered... and I left disappointed.

There aren't any "spoilers" below; nothing like "Dumbledore dies" anyway.  Nothing you couldn't have learned by watching a trailer.  Maybe you'd want to see the movie first before reading, anyway, just to be sure.

Friday, July 20, 2012

From The Magicians

I recently read The Magicians by Lev Grossman.  The story is sort of a commentary/deconstruction of childhood fantasy novels, especially Harry Potter and Narnia.  I suppose I have more I could say about it, but I was really struck by this quote:

Penny chose Oslo -- not even New Oslo, just Oslo, as if they thought they came up with it first -- for its total lack of anything that might distract him.  He arrived in mid-September and had no trouble renting a small farmhouse on the outskirts of town on a one-lane rural route.  His landlord was a retired schoolteacher who handed him the keys and then fled to his winter in South Carolina.  Penny's nearest neighbors on either side were a congregationless one-shack Pentecostal church and an out-of-session summer camp for disturbed children.  It was perfect.  He had found his Walden.

He had everything he needed: silence; solitude; a U-haul trailer packed with an enviable library of magical codices, monographs, chapbooks, reference books, ad broadsheets.  He had a sturdy desk, a well-lit room, and a window with an unscenic view of an unmown backyard that offered no particular temptation to gaze out at it.  He had a manageable, intriguingly dangerous research project that showed every sign of maturing into a genuinely interesting line if inquiry.  He was in heaven.

But one afternoon a few weeks after he arrived, as he sat at his desk, his watery blue eyes trailing over words of consummate power written centuries ago with a pen made out of a hippogriff feather, Penny found his mind wandering.  His large, usually lineless brow crinkled.  Something was sapping his powers of concentration.  Wa he under attack, maybe by a rival researcher?  Who would dare!  He rubbed his eyes and shook his head and focused harder.  But his attention continued to drift.

It turned out Penny had discovered in himself a weakness, a flaw he never would have suspected himself of in a thousand years, an age to which, with a few careful modifications that he would look into wen he had the time, he had every intention of living.  The flaw was this: he was lonely.

The idea was outrageous.  It was humiliating.  He, Penny, was a stone-cold loner, a depserado.  He was the Han Solo of Oslo.  He knew and loved this about himself.

This describes me almost perfectly.  Sometimes I want cloister myself off and just read and study and solve problems, free from the oppressive burdens of human interactions... but I just can't.  I can go with very little human interaction, but very little still isn't none.  And it has been interesting to learn of my own possession of the weakness of needing human interaction.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Kingkiller Chronicles Speculation: The King and Caesura

I am continuing my speculation on the fantastic series, the Kingkiller Chronicles.  I've discussed Denna, the identity of Master Ash, the use of Copper, and what the plan of the Chandrian might be.

In this post, I want to look at the title "Kingkiller", and the name "Poet-killer" given to the sword Caesura.

Obviously, Kvothe is called Kingkiller because he kills at least one king.

Friday, July 13, 2012

It's Got Gears on the Cover!

Antikythera mechanism

That's how you know a book is steampunk; if it's got gears on it.

A close friend of mine and I have a running debate on steampunk.  He thinks it's an inherently flawed genre, whereas I think it's a genre with the potential to be good, if done right.

I've been trying to prove him wrong, to little avail.

The heart of steampunk, from what I can tell, is the fantastical machines.  Clockwork androids, aether flux shields, steam rifles and bicycle-powered flying machines.  It's about a future that might have been, where mechanisms were just slightly less complicated and inventors only slightly more brilliant and insane.  With a hammer, some wrenches, and a lathe, the dedicated professor can pound out some incredible piece revolution of precision engineering.  It attempts to capture that era of uncertainty and excitement that surrounded the huge technical advancements of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Any thing could have been made, anything could have been discovered; the world was young and large and waiting to be explored.

That is a good setting for a genre.  It has so much potential.

Sadly, I've found very little that really captures it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Identity Crisis

Sometimes, oftentimes, I wonder if I actually "count" as a scientist.  If I'm really a scientist, or just someone with high-functioning autism and a love of applied mathematics.

I don't find myself fitting in with the rest of the scientific community, or not very well.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Let Me In: the anti-Twilight

Vampires are evil.  It's easy to forget that simple fact, given the way modern culture looks at vampires:

Vampires aren't evil, they are cool!

They have sarcastic anti-hero personalities, and make witty quips while defying authority.  They are super-sexy and seductive.  They have super strength, and can fly, and make awesome boyfriends.  They can have children, and they can half half-vampire children with mortals.

They're basically a race of superheroes, only they can't go in to the sunlight.

They aren't even necessarily undead, either.  As mentioned, they can give birth to offspring.  When I Am Legend (the book) first came out, it offered a new explanation in terms of a virus, and that has become the stock explanation of not only vampires, but zombies, too.

So it's easy to forget where they came from, and that is medieval notions of the antichrist.

Vampires are evil.

Not the cool, sexy evil.  They are the horrifying, creepy, upsetting evil.  You do not want to be a vampire, or know a vampire, or date a vampire, or have babies with a vampire.

I saw a vampire movie recently that, very subtly, I think showcased this more than anything else.

Friday, July 6, 2012

A Dragon's Psalm

I took this from The Pilgrim's Regress by C.S. Lewis.  It is one of my favorite books by him, as it is just so packed with symbolism you almost need a philosophical encyclopedia with you when you read it.  It is the first book written by Lewis after his conversion, and tells the allegorical struggle of a young man from the town of Puritania as he goes on a quest after a vision of an Island.

At some point, there is a miserly dragon living in a frozen waste, living alone over a hoard of gold, and it sings this song to itself.

Illustration by Michael Hague
Once the worm-laid egg broke in the wood.
I came forth shining into the trembling wood,
The sun was on my scales, dew upon the grasses,
The cool, sweet grasses and the budding leaves.
I wooed my speckled mate.  We played at druery
And sucked warm milk dripping from the goats' teats.

Now I keep watch on the gold in my rock cave
In a country of stones: old, deplorable dragon,
Watching my hoard.  In winter night the gold
Freezes through toughest scales my cold belly.
The jagged crowns and twisted cruel rings
Knobbly and icy are old dragon's bed.

Often I wish I hadn't eaten my wife,
Though worm grows not to dragon till he eat worm.
She could have helped me, watch and watch about,
Guarding the hoard.  Gold would have been safer.
I could uncoil my weariness at times and take
A little sleep, sometimes when she was watching.

Last night under the moonset a fox barked,
Woke me.  Then I knew I had been sleeping.
Often an owl flying over the country of stones
Startles me, and I think I must have slept.
Only a moment.  That very moment a man
Might have come out of the cities, stealing, to get my gold.

They make plots in the towns to steal my gold.
They whisper of me in a low voice, laying plans,
Merciless men.  Have they not ale upon the benches,
Warm wife in bed, singing, and sleep the whole night?
But I leave not the cave but once in winter
To drink of the rock pool: in summer twice.

They feel not pity for the old, lugubrious dragon.
Oh, Lord, that made the dragon, grant me Thy peace!
But ask not that I should give up the gold,
Nor move, nor die; others would get the gold.
Kill, rather, Lord, the men and the other dragons
That I may sleep, go when I will to drink.

I think it is beautiful for its ugliness.  It describes a miserable and wretched creature whose obsession is the source of all its misery.  The dragon yearns for surcease from the cold, hungry loneliness that it has caused itself, yet asks for it on its own terms, in the terms that let it keep the source of all its misery and remain essentially the same pitiful worm it always has been.  It does not want any change, rather that the entire world be bent around it and all the men and dragons slain so that it may have the peace it could have if it would just forget about its silly golden hoard.

I think it is such a complete picture of the fallen state of humans, how our own pride and desires generate all of our misery, and how we reject the insurmountable joy of God, being unwilling to let go of our golden hoards.

That's all I have for today.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Kingkiller Chronicles Speculation: the Chandrian and Their Plan

I'm going to continue speculating about the Kingkiller Chronicles.  I have already covered Master Ash and what I think copper is used for.

SPOILERS AHEAD!  Please don't read unless you have read both of the books, and thoroughly at that.

Very early in the first book, before we even know who the silent innkeeper is, we hear about the Chandrian.  From the story, we quickly pick up that they are some sort of evil sorcerers with eery powers.  We learn some weird stuff, like fires going blue and metal rusting, but most importantly is the children's rhyme:

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Physics of a Chess Board

In Through the Looking Glass by the Reverend Lewis Carol, Alice walks through a mirror in her living room and finds the chessboard that normally resides there to be teeming with little chess pieces running around.  Leaving her mirror-house, the entire country around it has been transformed in to a chessboard.  Alice starts as a pawn and has to walk forward one step at a time to the end, when she will become a queen and be able to run as fast as she wants across the country.

While Carol's story is whimsical and fun, what would be the implications of living in a chess board?  What are the "physical laws" experienced by a given chess piece?

So imagine all the universe to be a discrete 8X8 grid, alternately tiled with black and white, and conceive of a chess piece as being a kind of elementary particle in this bizarre chess world.  We will look mostly at the free dynamics of such a chess particle - that is, how it behaves dynamically in the absence of other pieces.