2015年9月29日 星期二

"The Concise Pepys Diary" by Samuel Pepys (1669)


January 1659/1660

"Blessed be God, at the end of the last year I was in very good health, without any sense of my old pain, but upon taking of cold.  I lived in Axe Yard, having my wife, and servant Jane, and no other in family than us three."

September 2015

7th. Blessed be ?, at the beginning of this month I am in good health, without any sense of my old ADD, though troubled I am by work.  I live in Taitung, Taiwan, having my wife, our two daughters, and five cats, with no other family than us... nine.

September 1662

"3rd.  Mr. Coventry told us how the Fanatiques and Presbyters, that did intend to rise about this time, did choose this day as the most auspicious to them in their endeavors against monarchy: it being fatal twice to the King, and the day of Oliver's death.  But, blessed be God! all is likely to be quiet, I hope.  Dr. Fairbrother tells me, what I heard confirmed since, that it was fully resolved by the King's new Council that an indulgence should be granted..."

September 2015.

9th. Mr. Pepys does tell us how the King doth scheme against the Parliament, and the Parliament doth scheme against the King.  And when not scheming the King does busy himself with his mistresses, as Mr. Pepys does busy himself with the intrigues of court and the amassing of wealth.  It's all very repetitive, really, and many has been the time I've fallen asleep over this book.

February 1664/1665

"17th.  Povey tells me how my Lord Barkeley will say openly, that he hath sought more set fields than any man in England hath done."

September 2015

15th.  Almost halfway through this book.  Interesting; his comments upon Shakespeare.  It seems that the Bard and Mr. Pepys were contemporaries, and Mr. Pepys was not overly fond of Shakespeare's plays.  It makes me wonder what parts of our own culture will be exalted by future ages.  Will our love for Steven Spielberg and Dan Brown be justified by our descendants, or will they instead choose other elements of our culture to admire - aspects of it that we ourselves fail to notice?

January 1666/1667

"3rd.  This day, I hear, hath been a conference between the two Houses about the Bill for examining Accounts, wherein the House of Lords their proceedings in petitioning the King for doing it by Commission, are in great heat voted by the Commons, after the conference, unparliamentary."

September 2015

20th.  Got very drunk the other night.  But not Samuel Pepys.  He never gets drunk.  Or at least he never writes about it.  He is the Protestant work ethic personified.  And what ethic do I personify?  How is the age in which I live embodied in my person?

December 1667

"29th.  At night comes Mr. Turner to see us; and there, among other talk, she tells me that Mr. William Pen, who is lately come over from Ireland, is a Quaker again, or some very melancholy thing; that he cares for no company, nor comes into any; which is a pleasant thing, after his being abroad so long, and his father such a hypocritical rogue, and at this time an Atheist."

September 2015

25th.  I think I would like this Mr. Pepys, but he worries too much about other people.  He has a great desire to be liked, and so he is entirely too circumspect in his behavior.  But perhaps he can be excused this failing.  Perhaps it is only the effect of the time he lived in, when men great and small could be laid low at the whim of a King.

May 1669

"I all the afternoon drawing up a foul draught of my petition to the Duke of York about my eyes, for leave to spend three or four months out of the office, drawing it so as to give occasion to a voyage abroad; which I did to my pretty good liking.  And then with my wife to Hyde Park, where a good deal of company and good weather."

September 2015

28th.  Spent part of the afternoon writing this post about Samuel Pepys and his diary.  A long book, and most repetitious, but it was at times gratifying to find this very normal, very decent man living so long before me, in an age very different from my own.

2015年9月18日 星期五

The Hulk's Less Threatening Foes


All the Hulk really wants is some alone time.

But instead of just leaving him be, the U.S. military is always shooting missiles at him, making other Hulks out of his DNA, or otherwise getting in his face.  It's a sad thing, really, especially since Leaving Hulk Alone would be the best national defense strategy ever.

And on top of the U.S. military and General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross, there are all these other guys trying to get in on some of that Hulk action.  Guys like The Leader.  Guys like The Absorbing Man.  Even guys like Iron Man, who should probably just stay home and stop trying to shoot Hulk into space.

Some of these characters are better known than others.  Offered here is a short list of Hulk's lesser known foes.

1. The Follower

The Follower's power is gamma-enhanced stupidity.  He'll occasionally try to build super weapons to fight the Hulk, but these super weapons are always shoddily constructed and never work.  While his dreaded Lego Gun was a source of irritation to the Hulk, in the end it didn't hurt him at all, and it caused the Hulk to remove The Follower's diminished head from his body.

2. The Transmuting Man

The Transmuting Man's power is the ability to transform other, inanimate objects into his own human tissue.  In other words, if he touches a rock it becomes this ball of living, pulsating flesh.  When battling the Hulk, he will often transform nearby vehicles into blobs of neurons or (at best) skeletal tissue that he's unable to lift.  It's a disgusting power, really, and this is why The Transmuting Man isn't invited to more super villain parties.

3. Ladyboy Hulk

After a drug and alcohol-fueled weekend in Bangkok, Bruce Banner's attempt to "party like it was 1999" resulted in Thailand's first super villain, Ladyboy Hulk.  Although green and super strong, Ladyboy Hulk prefers karaoke and Celine Dion recordings to battles with the Hulk.  Bruce Banner is Facebook friends with Ladyboy Hulk, though he continues to list his relationship status as "complicated."

4. Doc Phil

Thinking that relationship issues were what drove the Hulk to his acts of destruction, General Ross used Bruce Banner's gamma technology to create Doc Phil, a sensitive, balding version of the Hulk.  Appearances to the contrary, Doc Phil quickly proved himself to be one of the Hulk's greatest foes, and after appearing on his television show, the Hulk was brought to tears by the gamma-enhanced psychiatrist.

5. The Green(er) Hulk

Unknowingly exposed to gamma radiation while aboard the Rainbow Warrior, the Green(er) Hulk is an environmentally aware, super strong citizen of the Earth.  While acting against the military-industrial complex and corporations everywhere, the Green(er) Hulk is also displeased with the Hulk's acts of environmental destruction.  He never actually fights the Hulk, but rather lectures him on the benefits of "going greener, going vegan, and lowering your carbon footprint."  Such lectures have often driven Hulk to the brink of suicide.

6. Ang Lee

The deadliest of Hulk's many adversaries, Ang Lee often attempts to cast the Hulk in sensitive, character-driven films with lots of dialogue.  All the scenes featuring the Hulk in Ang Lee's movie were filmed against the Hulk's will, and were actually attempts to kill the director, filmed without the Hulk's knowledge.

7. Other Villains

I would also be remiss if I left out the J-Foes, who are just like the U-Foes except they come from Japan, the Rainbow Hulk, who is not only "proud" but also married to Flash nemesis Rainbow Raider, and The Thang, member of the Funkadelic Four, who plays bass and sings backup on "Mothership Connection."

Some of My Favorite Authors

I thought I'd offer this selection of my favorite authors.  Make of it what you will, and no, having seen a movie adaptation doesn't count!

   
Douglas Adams

I've read all his Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy books.  At his best the guys is hilarious.  At his worst he's still a very polished writer.

J.G. Ballard

I've read Empire of the Sun and Crash, both of which inspired movies of the same names.  He writes (wrote?) with an intensity that few authors can surpass, while at the same time using themes and subject matter that other writers wouldn't touch.

Jose Luis Borges

Like the South American answer to H. P. Lovecraft, Borges was a quiet, extremely literate man who wrote some of the strangest stories ever.  All of his fiction can be found in a single volume.

Arthur C. Clarke

I've read all of his 2001 series, Childhood's End, and several of his short stories.  I have no doubt that some of his later work was astonishingly dull, but his early work is science fiction at its best.

Joseph Conrad

There's a lot more to this guy than Heart of Darkness.  He was also one of the most adventurous, most experimental writers ever.  My favorite of his books is probably Nostromo.  Who else could write a two page long description of the sun setting upon the ocean, and make you sorry that it was only two pages long?
  
Philip K. Dick

I've read, I think, over 20 of his novels.  The V.A.L.I.S. Trilogy, A Scanner Darkly, and the Transmigration of Timothy Archer are all classic.  He was a brilliant, paranoid, emotionally disturbed man who wrote some excellent books.

Charles Dickens 

Early Dickens is what you want to read first.  Oliver Twist, Great Expectations - all of that.  His later books, while good, amplify the social commentary at the expense of his sense of humor.  I've read a lot of his books - maybe more than 10 now - but Oliver Twist remains my favorite.
 
Alexandre Dumas

Dumas is one of the great French authors, having penned (at least part of) The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Man in the Iron Mask.  His books aren't just great adventure stories.  They're also quite funny.

James Ellroy

Ellroy the writer a lot like many of his characters.  He finds something that works, and then proceeds to beat it to death.  His L.A. Quartet and Underworld USA Trilogy are all excellent books full of sex and violence.

William Faulkner


The archetypal Southern writer, Faulkner was a functioning alcoholic who wrote sprawling sagas about Southern towns, Southern families, and Southern life.  Go Down, Moses is probably my favorite of his books, though if he ever wrote a bad book I've yet to read it.
 
Graham Greene

If you ever want to read something tortured, I'd highly recommend The End of the Affair.  I've also read Journey Without Maps and The Quiet American, both of which were great.

Frank Herbert


Yes, he wrote some bad books, but his best books are imaginative works that will stand the test of time.  I've read his entire bibliography, and I highly recommend God Emperor of Dune, The Jesus Incident (written with Bill Ransom), and The Godmakers.

Rudyard Kipling

I believe I've read all of his fiction.  The Jungle Book and his other writings are good, but Kim blows them all out of the water.  Kipling had a lot to say about the British Empire, and man's relationship with the natural world.

H.P. Lovecraft


An awkward, sickly New Englander who worshiped another awkward, sickly New Englander by the name of Edgar Allan Poe.  Not everything Lovecraft wrote was good - some of it was derivative, some of it was also racist - but no one re-imagined other dimensions, ancient cults, and bizarre, galaxy-spanning horrors with greater skill.  At the Mountains of Madness is probably his best story.

Gabriel Marcia Marquez

Undoubtedly my favorite South American writer, and I've read books by quite a few South American writers.  100 Years of Solitude is one of my favorite books, and Love in the Time of Cholera is also very good.

George R. R. Martin

Everyone fawning over the Game of Thrones TV series really ought to read the books.  How Martin writes such long, complicated, morally ambiguous books is beyond me, but I'm glad that he does.  I'm very much looking forward to his next novel.

Cormac McCarthy


Something of a latter-day Faulkner, but McCarthy writes in a style that is very much his own.  I cannot praise his Border Trilogy enough, and he continues to impress me with both the quality of his writing and the erudition necessary to flesh out his plots.  There is also a lot of depravity in his novels, and I enjoy that.

Herman Melville

Moby Dick might still be the quintessential American novel.  It remains my favorite of his books, though Melville's other books are sadly overlooked.  His first book, Typee, is also very good, as are some of his later, more experimental works.

Edgar Allan Poe 

Like Melville and Hawthorne, Poe was one of the first great American writers.  His style of writing was at once more verbose and more conventional than either of those writers, and he is sometimes credited with inventing both the detective and science fiction genres.  Like his acolyte Lovecraft, he's had more than one reader pulling out the dictionary.
 
Philip Roth

Roth has received a lot of attention within the past decade or so, but his earlier works, much like those of Cormac McCarthy, were largely overlooked when they were first published.  His books can be extremely depressing, and his fiction has a masturbatory side that grows tiresome, but even so he's written some great books.  American Pastoral is my favorite.

Jules Verne


Verne is another famous Frenchman, and he may have also invented the science fiction genre.  His characters are paper-thin, his plots are ridiculous, but no one wrote an adventure story like Verne.  I recommend starting from his more famous books and branching outward from there.

2015年9月9日 星期三

Ongoing Superhero Movie Franchises (As of September 2015)


Now that we've all seen (or failed to see) this summer's Fantastic Four reboot, it feels like a good time to review how the various cinematic universes are progressing.  There are, at this point, a lot of superhero films to sort through, and in 2016 there will be even more added to the pile.

To begin, there are 3.5 cinematic universes at the time of writing.  These are the Marvel Cinematic Universe (most of the Marvel characters, with some exceptions), the Fox Cinematic Universe (the X-men and Fantastic Four), and the DC Extended Universe (all of the DC characters).  Those of you familiar with Sony's Spider-man drama can probably guess what the ".5" signifies.

   
1. The Marvel Cinematic Universe

The Marvel films are made by Marvel Studios, which is in turn owned by Disney.  As the head of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige is now reporting directly to Disney, and creative decisions with regard to films will no longer fall under the scrutiny of Marvel Entertainment's creative committee.  Whether this improves the overall quality of Marvel's films remains to be seen.

Last summer saw the release of Ant-Man, the movie which concludes Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Ant-Man was the 12th film in the MCU, and was better received (if less profitable) than May's Avengers: Age of Ultron.

In case you are one of the five people worldwide who didn't see Avengers 2, it involved the creation of artificial intelligence by Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Bruce Banner (the Hulk).  This A.I., christened Ultron by Tony, attempts to destroy the Avengers, and as a means of defeating him they create the Vision, an android capable of flight and other wonders.  The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are also introduced in this movie, though they are less integral to the plot.

The key element here is distrust.  After discovering what Tony has done, several members of the team - chief among them Captain America - begin to question his judgment.  This leads to a schism within the Avengers which isn't entirely healed by the conclusion of that movie.  There are also the "visions" that several characters experience at the hands of the Scarlet Witch, leading each to believe that some kind of war or conflict lies beyond their struggles with Ultron.

And also there is Ant-Man, which introduces Ant-Man, who will appear again in Captain America: Civil War.  It is unknown at this time what role he'll play in that movie, but the conclusion of his film included a post-credits scene where Captain America and the Falcon have finally tracked down Bucky (the Winter Soldier).  Bucky seems to be in some kind of trouble, and presumably they require either Scott Lang or Hank Pym's help to rescue him.

Ant-Man and Avengers: Age of Ultron set the stage for Marvel's Phase 3 movies, which kick off in May with Civil War.  Civil War is one of Marvel's most successful comic book series, detailing a struggle between Captain America and Iron Man over the role of "enhanced" individuals in society.  Several elements of this story will need to be adapted to fit a two-hour movie, not least of which are the lack of secret identities in the MCU, the reduced number of characters, and the recent inclusion of Spider-man in the MCU. (more on this in a moment)

After Civil War, Marvel will release Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Marvel's Spider-man, and Thor: Ragnarok.  Next to nothing is known about these films, aside from certain announcements regarding cast members and directors.  Marvel's Spider-man will be introduced in Civil War, and his solo film will feature a Spider-man struggling with both high school and the recent acquisition of his powers.  Thor: Ragnarok likely features the clone Thor, and I'd imagine that elements of this third Thor are sprinkled throughout Civil War.

Then, in 2018, comes the first of Marvel's two-part Infinity War.  As everyone knows, the villain in this film will be Thanos, who was introduced way back in the first Avengers movie.  Thanos will assemble the Infinity Gauntlet, one of the most powerful weapons in the Marvel Universe, and the good guys will need to pull out all the stops to thwart him.  Believe it or not, this film will start filming next year.

Between Infinity War 1 and 2, Marvel will release both the Black Panther and Ms. Marvel movies.  Chadwick Boseman - a great actor, by the way - will appear as Black Panther in Civil War, and mention of his home country Wakanda was already made in Age of Ultron.  Nothing is known about Captain Marvel yet, though I agree that Emily Blunt would be awesome in the role.

Following both Black Panther and Captain Marvel will be the second part of Infinity War, and if this movie isn't over three hours long I'll be surprised.  It is the culmination of everything Marvel has been working toward since the first Thor (or maybe even the Incredible Hulk), and it will either be a stellar success or a crushing disappointment.

Finally, in 2019, there's the Inhumans.  Nothing is known about this film except the writers.  The TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been building up to this movie - to a small extent - but I find Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. unbearable and I can't bring myself to watch it.

And let's not forget about the Netflix shows, of which Daredevil's first season has already been released.  Jessica Jones is on the way soon, and will be followed by Luke Cage, Iron Fist, the Defenders, and another season of Daredevil.  All of these shows take place within the MCU, and it's possible that one or more of these characters will show up in future Marvel films.

It does indeed boggle the mind.

   
1.5. Spider-man/Sony

OK so now I can move on to Spider-man.  Since the disappointment that was the Amazing Spider-man 2, Sony and Marvel Studios have agreed to share the character.  This means that Spidey will be appearing in films by Marvel Studios, and Kevin Feige will be overseeing Sony's solo Spider-man films.  It's a win for everybody, except maybe Andrew Garfield.

As said above, Spider-man will make his first MCU appearance in Civil War, and his solo film will be released between Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Thor: Ragnarok.  I would imagine that he's also going to pop up in the Infinity War movies, since he is Marvel Comics' most recognizable character. 

   
2. The Fox Cinematic Universe

Troubled waters here, and it remains to be seen how Fox moves past the abortion that was the Fantastic Four reboot.

Of all the upcoming films discussed here, Deadpool will be the first to hit theaters, in February of next year.  This will be followed by X-men: Apocalypse and Gambit - also in 2016 - and then a third (and final) Wolverine film with Hugh Jackman in 2017.

I think most people will agree that the FCU has been more of a mixed bag.  But then again it was also the first on the scene, with the first X-men film preceding the first Iron Man by eight years.  The years from 2000 to 2008 were a very different time for superhero films, with highlights being the Sam Raimi Spider-man, Blade, and the original Fantastic Four films.  Low points of that era include Daredevil, Ghost Rider, and Man-Thing.  Anyone else remember Man-Thing?

So in other words, it's probably not fair to judge the entirety of the X-men films against the entirety of the MCU.  Some of them came before our cgi Hulks and Spider-men, while others suffered by a continuity established by indifferent directors.  Yes, The Last Stand was terrible, and yes, X-men Origins: Wolverine was bad, but there were some gems in there, and X-men: Days of Future Past compares favorably to anything the MCU has to offer.

Leading me to Deadpool, wherein Ryan Reynolds attempts to do this character justice.  This could be a good movie.  I just hope they don't release too much of the footage in the trailers.  It looks funny, the action scenes appear well done, and it might just be great.  We'll see.

After Deadpool there's X-men: Apocalypse, which serves as the sequel to Days of Future Past.  In this installment, the X-men face the titular villain, and several new mutants join both younger cast members and the core members from X-men: First Class.  Given that most of the people involved in this movie were also involved in Days of Future Past, I think it will be solid.

I'm more skeptical about Gambit and the third Wolverine.  While Channing Tatum was great in Foxcatcher, I have trouble imagining him with a Cajun accent, and throwing kinetically charged playing cards around.  He's good at playing off his oafish/handsome demeanor, but can he do "cool"?

The third Wolverine will be based on the "Old Man Logan" series from the comic books.  At first glance this seems like a good idea, but what about all the characters Fox doesn't have the rights to?  Hawkeye, the Hulk, and several other characters retained by Marvel are inaccessible to Fox, and Wolverine's battle with the "Hulk family" was the best part of the comic book.


3. The DC Extended Universe

At the present time we are only one movie into the DCEU - 2013's Man of Steel.  I thought Man of Steel was half of a good movie, while the other half was a mind-numbing festival of cgi.  That second half reminded me a lot of The Matrix Revolutions - parts of it looked awesome, but the whole was rather unsatisfying.

Hopefully director Zack Snyder took down some notes after mixed reactions to Man of Steel, because next year we get two additions to the DCEU - one directed by Snyder and the other directed by David Ayer.  The former would be the much-anticipated Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the latter would be Suicide Squad.

Batman v. Superman deals with the fallout of Superman's actions at the end of Man of Steel.  Now a public figure (and deity to some), Kal-el must contend with Gotham City's Batman, Lex Luthor, and Wonder Woman.  Other DC characters will likely make appearances in this movie, and it lays the groundwork for the DCEU in much the same way that Iron Man 2 laid the groundwork for the MCU.

Suicide Squad will feature several notable villains from DC's roster, the most famous being the Joker.  Jared Leto will play the clown prince of crime, and Margot Robbie will star as his (former?) minion Harley Quinn.  The trailer for this movie looks amazing, and I'm really looking forward to it.

On the heels of these two movies, extending from 2017 to 2020, will be Wonder Woman, Justice League Parts One and Two, the Flash, Aquaman, Shazam, Cyborg, the Green Lantern Corps, and an untitled Batman film that Ben Affleck will probably direct.  Various actors have already been cast as some of these superheroes, but details are few and far between.

And that is most of what the general public knows as of now.  Placed in a chart, the upcoming schedule of superhero films looks like this:




2016
2017
2018
2019
2020
Jan

Feb
Deadpool

Mar
Batman v. Superman
Wolverine 3
The Flash

Apr

Shazam
Cyborg
May
X-men: Apocalypse, Captain America: Civil War
Guardians of the Galaxy 2
Avengers: Infinity War Pt. 1
Avengers: Infinity War Pt. 2

Jun

Wonder Woman

Justice League Pt. 2
Green Lantern Corps
Jul

Marvel’s Spider-man
Aquaman, Black Panther
Inhumans

Aug
Suicide Squad

Sep

Oct
Gambit

Nov
Doctor Strange
Justice League Pt. 1, Thor: Ragnarok
Captain Marvel

Dec



Hope you like superheroes, because there's a lot of them on the way.

2015年9月7日 星期一

"Downbelow Station" by C.J. Cherryh (1981)


C.J. Cherryh's earliest books were published in the late 1970s, and she is still writing fiction today.  "C.J." is short for Carolyn Janice, and the "H" was added to her last name at the suggestion of her publisher.  She didn't want to be identified as female early in her career, and her publisher thought that "Cherry" sounded too feminine.  Given that the likes of Ursula Le Guin and Marion Zimmer Bradley were well-known long before her, I'm not sure if the name change was truly warranted.

"Downbelow Station" is her best known book.  It won the Hugo, and one of its many sequels, "Cyteen," also won that coveted award.  Cherryh's bibliography is indeed extensive, though she remains one of the lesser-known science fiction authors.  Having only read one of her novels, I cannot say whether she deserves to be better remembered or not.

Downbelow Station details a war between Earth and its daughter colonies in another solar system.  Much of the action centers around the space station Pell, which orbits one of the three life sustaining planets then known to humankind.  Humans from Pell have also settled on the planet around which their station orbits, and it is this settlement, known as Downbelow Station, which proves crucial to the competing interests presented in the story.

This novel is written from a third person perspective, limited to things that only the character thus described would notice.  For example, the captain of the ship isn't going to notice what his or her ship looks like, so these details are entirely absent from the book.  For this reason Downbelow Station can be extremely confusing, though I think the experiment is more successful towards the end of the book.  

I don't know how much Cherryh embraced this style in other books, but hopefully she modified it somewhat for later books in the series.  Lacking the more descriptive passages that would have made Downbelow Station more convincing, it falls strangely flat in places.  In other places, it doesn't feel quite far enough removed from the present day.

Though this isn't to say that Downbelow Station is a bad book.  Actually, as 80s sci fi goes, I would consider it a resounding success.  It's better written than books by some other sci fi "legends," and the plot hangs together nicely.  My only complaint is that it somehow feels rather pedestrian, and lacks that element of strangeness which would have lifted it to another level.  When most of us read sci fi, we want to be taken somewhere new, somewhere different, and yet Downbelow Station reads like something that could have existed in a historical period known to us - minus the aliens and space travel, of course.

I'll probably read one or two of the sequels.  Maybe the series gets better as it goes along.  As it is, I would give Downbelow Station a passing grade.  It's nothing that will blow your mind, but it's a competent work of science fiction.