Sunday, September 30, 2012

Steampunk Nintendo case (link)

A story via Boing Boing about a nice uncle who made a steampunk case for an old Nintendo unit:
http://boingboing.net/2012/09/27/steampunk-nintendo-casemod.html
Hey, that's what uncles are for!


Steampunk is an art movement that uses faux-Victorian design and engineering styles to create an alternative-universe of technology. Lovely stuff purely as art, wonderful as fantasy, and inspiring for those who want to think about how the world might have evolved if tipping-point events had happened sooner (or later) than they did in our history. More at:
http://www.steampunk.com/

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Help Kickstart a mod to Alien Swarm (link)

Check out this if you like games. Check it out if you like supporting struggling artists. My friend (and former student, so I know he's good) Tim Carter looking for support to develop a new campaign for Alien Swarm:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/70691618/reduction-the-bug-war-on-earth-sci-fi-game-campaig

It works as posted, I've tested it.

UPDATE: The campaign is now over. Unfortunately, only about 10%of the needed funds were promised.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Swing, Brother, Swing (Book review)

Ngaio Marsh Swing, Brother, Swing (1949) Lord Pastern, an eccentric peer, develops a passion for drumming and persuades Breezy Bellair to let him play with his band. His stepdaughter Felicity falls for Rivera, the oleaginous accordion player and drug dealer. Rivera is murdered during a performance at the Metronome in full view of the audience, which includes the peer’s family, all of whom detest Rivera. Alleyn and Troy happen to be present also, which makes Alleyn a witness in his own case.
      The puzzle is more ingenious than usual, mostly because Lord Pastern, an egocentric clever idiot, attempts to misdirect the police: he wants to produce the correct solution when the police have given up.
     But as usual it’s the characters that fascinate. I came across an interview on New Zealand radio, in which Marsh said she started composition of her crime stories with a group of people, not a puzzle. She claimed not to be very good at inventing a puzzles, an observation confirmed by some of her readers. Her focus on character explains the charm of her books, at least for me. The Golden Age of detective fiction is stuffed with books and stories that are little more than abstract puzzles, like word problems concocted for algebra class, but with the characters given names rather than letters.
     Marsh is very good at using dialogue to show how people can be their own worst enemies, frustrating their chances at happiness, delaying the police in their inquiries, and causing present hurts and preventing past hurts from healing. It’s odd but true that Alleyn and Fox are usually the most colourless and least imposing characters in the room. This follows partly from their technique of cool but ruthless pursuit of facts, and partly from their role as investigators. We want to know the facts, but we also want to know about the investigator. This creates a tension, a division of interest, which creates a narrative problem. Marsh solves it by asides, scenes interposed that show Alleyn and Troy, or Alleyn and Fox alone. These advance the back story: we find out that Troy is pregnant, and that Fox will be godfather.
     One of Marsh’s best. ***½

Bonk! (Book Review)

Mary Roach Bonk! (2008) The subtitle, “The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex” both describes the book and sets the tone. It’s a history of scientific research into sex, research that made very difficult by the fact that humans are the only mammals who feel squeamish about coupling in public. The result is both a compendium of well-established facts and more or less dubious speculations,  many of which are still circulated in school playgrounds, sex-ed classes, and doctor’s offices.
     It’s clear that Roach likes sex, but likes research and reporting even more. She has a mordant wit, exhibited in asides and footnotes that demonstrate that she pays attention not only to the facts, but also the subjects’ feelings. She likes puns, too, a weakness I share. Our embarrassment about sex promotes euphemism, arch allusion, and jokes, a fact that Freud misinterpreted to mean that all humour is sexual. Recommended as an addition to one’s knowledge of both history and sex. I’m sure that the book could help relieve the anxieties of the naive and untutored. ***

Dugald Train Disater (Book review)

The Springfield Women’s Institute Dugald Train Disaster, Memories from 1947 (n. d., internal evidence indicates 2006 or 2007) 55 years ago, a train carrying people returning from the cottage country of Minaki to Winnipeg failed to take the siding at Dugald and crashed head-on into the eastbound Continental that was waiting for it there. The subsequent inquiry found that the Minaki special had been running too fast, and that the signals had been functioning, hence the engine crew were to blame. But a few details recalled by the survivors suggest that it was at least partly mechanical failure that caused the collision. 31 people, including the engineer and fireman on the Minaki special, are known to have died; some of the people quoted in this book think there were more.  The wooden coaches of the Minaki special burned; 23 people could not be identified and were buried in a mass grave, now marked by a cairn.
     The effect of these memoirs is heart breaking. The stories are factual accounts, with no or very little embellishment of the kind some writers use to generate horror. People are simply telling their stories, many of which sound as if they were transcribed from speech. It’s the omission of details and emotions that make these stories so effective. I have the impression that these survivors have lived with horror and grief for many years, and have coped with it by reducing their memories to as purely objective factual accounts as they could. That leaves the reader to imagine how it must have felt. It’s what we imagine of the scene at the time, and the aftermath of recalled horror, that makes us grieve, too. The sub-text throughout is that of a the happy ending of a carefree weekend turned into mutilation and death.
     The booklet bears all the evidence of an amateur production, but that makes it even more affecting. The Dugald disaster has been the background of daily life in that farming community for over 50 years. Not an easy collective memory to live with. ***

Saturday, September 22, 2012

More Losers (Book review)

Ben Wicks More Losers (1982) A collection of weird news, accompanied by Wicks’ charming cartoons. Wicks does not, like Chuck Shepherd, guarantee factuality, but none of the reported incidents are obvious urban legends. One can read the book in about half an hour; it’s a pleasant way to spend 30 minutes. It’s also fun to dip into again.
    And while there are a plethora of losers, there are also some winners: “Calvin Coolidge was once approached by a young girl who excitedly gushed, “Oh, Mr. President, Poppa says if I can get three words out of you he will buy me a fur coat.” The president snapped back, “Father wins.” **

Colour Scheme, Died in the Wool, Final Curtain (Three book reviews)

Ngaio Marsh Colour Scheme (1943) Alleyn is still in New Zealand, seconded there to help with counter-espionage. Setting: a spa/hotel near the NZ coast, run by a gormless English family. Victim: a guest who has lent  them money. Suspects: an English actor stranded in NZ, several members of the family, a couple of Maoris. Solution: a spy who was sussed by the victim. The puzzle depends on colour blindness, hence the title.
     Marsh is more ingenious than usual at placing red herrings, and as good as ever at social comedy and satire. Her portrait of the Great Actor is just this side of malicious. The clash of gentility with business sense  is satirised perhaps too gently. The love affair between the actor’s aide and the daughter of the house is nicely handled: Marsh has learned something about writing romances. The overall effect is that of a well-constructed play made into a novel. The characters are the types of social comedy or drawing room drama, but not mere cardboard cutouts. Pretty good, and a treat for Marsh fans. **½

Ngaio Marsh Died in the Wool (1945) Another punning title: the victim is packed up in a bale of wool. She’s a politician, one of those take-charge women who does a lot of good work on behalf of other people, who are not always happy to receive her benefactions, especially when she demands proofs of appropriately scaled, ie excessive, gratitude. She’s on a counter-espionage committee, too, hence Alleyn’s involvement.
     Alleyn must navigate not only the usual mess of confusing and muddling information, but also the effects of the victim’s personality on her family and the workers, with whom she has rather feudal relationship. This delays the revelation of crucial bits of information. One of the problems of writing mystery novels is manage that delay without it being too obviously a plot-stretching ploy. Marsh’s skill at character drawing, depicting relationships, revealing people’s history with its hurts and joys, complicates the story just enough to engage the reader without arousing impatience.
     The murder is discovered in a wool warehouse several weeks after it was done. There’s almost no physical evidence on the crime scene for Alleyn to sift. He must solve the crime by understanding the victim’s character, and how she was perceived and understood by all those around her. People have a natural tendency to both improve the character of a dead person, and to gloss over or hide anything that they feel is irrelevant, especially if it casts a less than perfect light on themselves. They also have differing recollections of the same events. Alleyn’s identification of  the murderer relies on the gaps and inconsistencies in the composite portrait and story. The puzzle’s solutions depends on timing, and the use of a radio to establish an alibi. Nicely done. ***

Ngaio Marsh Final Curtain (1947) While anticipating Alleyn’s return from New Zealand, Troy is asked, nay commanded, to paint the portrait of an aging Great Actor, a portrait that he will leave to the Nation. His family’s dysfunctional, and he’s done nothing to avert or dampen the rivalries that animate the siblings’ relationships with each other. He foments and aggravates the tensions and anxieties, by indulging in his rage and by ominous references to chnages in his Will. There’s a brief allusion to Lear and his three daughters, but here the sisters vie for the children’s rightful places and fortunes. The Great Actor has taken up with a chorus girl of surpassing beauty and not quite surpassing vulgarity, and proposes to marry her. This triggers his murder.
     The plot is beautifully constructed in two parts: Troy’s stay at Ancreton, the feudal seat, and Alleyn’s investigation of the murder. Once again, the murder investigation starts long after its occurrence. Alleyn and his crew have precious little to go on, but dead men do tell tales about the manner of their demise, and this, combined with Alleyn’s ability to get people to tell their stories, provides the solution. The relationship between Troy and Alleyn deepens.***½

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Overture to Death & Death at the Bar (2 book reviews)

Ngaio Marsh Overture to Death (1939) Set-up: a village in which two aging spinsters compete for the Vicar’s attentions, while interfering in everybody else’s life. Murder: at the beginning of an amateur play, produced as a fund-raiser for the parish’s youth group, when one of them is shot by a pistol connected to the soft-pedal of the piano on which she will play the “overture”. Denouement: psychologically based, far-fetched by current standards because it involves Freudian repressions and such. Characters: believable enough as stereotypes, used by Marsh to make sometimes cutting observations about religion, charity, hypocrisy, naivete, and so on. One of her sharper satires. The novel reminds me of a drawing room comedy written as social critique, a genre very popular in the 1930s (see Noel Coward’s plays). The  “modern” play is chosen against the wishes of the spinsters. Detection: focus primarily on Alleyn and Fox, with a letter to Troy inserted to keep that back-story going. Overall effect: another good Marsh, who in my opinion is under-rated by detection story fans that concentrate too much on the puzzle. **½

Ngaio Marsh Death at the Bar (1939) The title is a rather lame pun: A lawyer is murdered in the private bar of the pub in a small fishing village. The puzzle is more intricate than usual, and the characters are as nicely done as ever. This is Marsh as professional crime writer: the book is strictly formula, well-done, with enough incidental detail to provide the pleasures of living in a familiar fictional world. I’m not much of a puzzle solver when I read detective fiction, so the feel of the imagined world is important to me. I like Marsh’s version of English village life, and I like Alleyn, despite his sometimes irritating facetiousness. Or maybe because of it. There’s also enough contemporary detail to give us something of the feel of the times, such as a left-wing association  with an endearingly irrelevant run of Marxist jargon. **½

Wolfbane (Book Review)

F Pohl & C Kornbluth Wolfbane (1959) A wandering planet, home to mysterious Pyramids,  has taken Earth and its moon in tow, turning the moon into a fusion-powered mini-sun. They’ve been doing this for hundreds of thousands of years; Earth is their current (and last) victim.
     Earth’s inhabitants (at least the ones we meet) are a sorry lot, devoted to elaborate rituals designed to maintain as undisturbing a milieu as possible. Those that don’t fit in are called “Wolf”, and killed when caught. Glenn Tripole is a Wolf. He escapes by sudden Translation, a method used by the Pyramids to “harvest Components” for the bio-mechanically controlled factories and computers on their planet. Eventually, while part of an 8-person entity wired together to control the production of foodstuffs (for the Pyramids are themselves bio-mechanical), Glenn wakes up and begins a revolution. The Pyramids are destroyed, and the book ends with Glenn heading off to be rewired into a multi-person entity, which will control the path of the Planet and Earth.
     Pohl and Kornbluth posit that when calories fall below a certain level, society regresses to the “minor arts”. The society described by them recalls Western stereotypes of Japanese courtesy: over-elaborate, designed to hide embarrassing or disruptive feelings, and to make even conflicts seem as harmonious as possible. P&K are very good at presenting a society merely by describing such interactions, and the characters’ smug assurance that they are being perfectly civilised. No further explanations or descriptions are needed.
     But P&K’s depiction of the Pyramids is more impressive, I think. They manage to make us feel that these entities are non-human. When we discover that they are in fact machines, it’s something of a let-down. But the writers must (of course) show that humans (especially the anti-social minority of humans that they call Wolves) can win against anything the Universe throws at them. P&K are what I call Romantic libertarians, the kind that have not understood that a Libertarian polity would be nightmare of oppression.
     The most difficult task of an SF writer is to invent the Alien: by definition, we cannot think like an alien, so the problem becomes that of showing enough of an imagined alien life-from that we see it as alien. The Star Trek/Star Wars style of aliens as humans in funny costumes doesn’t work. (Star Trek does posit that the various races are all descended from bits of DNA planted billions of years ago by an intelligent species that found itself alone in the universe. Thus, the biological and psychological similarities between Humans, Klingons, Romulans, etc, are explained). In this book, too, a biological alien appears, as a corpse whose mind has somehow been kept functioning by the Pyramids, who were built by this alien’s ancestors. It is non-human in looks, but very human in psychology: it can even mind-meld with the 8-fold entity of which Tripole is a part.
     A short book, with a lot of intriguing ideas, better rounded characters than most SF, and well plotted. The showdown between the humans and the Pyramids is a bit too Hollywood, but it fits, which is more than can be said of many supposedly more realistic fictions. **½