I have a new website! And my own domain name!
This blog has been exported there, and there it will continue. With more regularity, one would hope.
There aren’t a lot of new things to say about Frank Ocean at this point. (Well, there probably are, but I don’t know what.) “Forrest Gump” was by far my favorite song on an overall great record, and waking up this morning to this very different live version was certainly an experience.
“Forrest Gump” would have been an all-time favorite song of mine even if it had been sung, as written, by a woman. And indeed the first time I listened to it, the use of male pronouns didn’t stand out to me all that much. I was, of course, already very aware of Ocean’s much-publicized semi-coming out, but I was trying to not let that eloquent bit of bravery be in and of itself to be why I loved the song or the album (or the artist).
After a few more listens, though, the enormity of hearing a catchy, emotional, yearning piece of R&B sung by a man to another man really hit me, and I imagined the young gay or bi kid for whom that would be an immensely big deal.
That it has now been sung at the Grammys is still a little mind-blowing.
 Except that the suit he wore to perform at the Grammys reminded me, intentionally or not, of The Pharcyde.
A few months ago, I discovered the BackStory history podcast, and I’ve been binge-listening through the archives. Each episode has a theme (presidential inaugurations, drugs, citizenship) that it explores throughout American history, triangulated through three hosts who are experts on different centuries (18th, 19th, 20th). The narrow focus of each episode gives the show a chance to dig deeper into weird details and stuff that isn’t common knowledge, and the segments are usually quick (but not too-quick) and well-produced.
The show is also extremely corny at times. I don’t know if the three hosts are actually fathers or not, but this thing can be wall-to-wall dad jokes, at times. Which is actually kind of endearing. Basically, if you like history, and don’t mind (or actively enjoy) goofy corny jokes, you can learn a lot of neat stuff from the show.
Here’s one of my favorite bits:
I remember being aghast in middle school — or high school, or whenever — when I learned that America got its name from just some guy. But, as I learned it then, this guy was an explorer and map-maker; supposedly the first to accurately map North America’s east coast. So that made sense, even though it was a fucking lie.
In this segment, from the BackStory episode about maps (I swear to God, a history podcast about maps is interesting. Really. Swear.), guest Felipe Fernández-Armesto describes who Amerigo Vespucci really was and why his name became America’s. It’s all pretty golden. Not just because Amerigo was a pimp, con man, and all-around hustler, but also because Fernández-Armesto is just so drily, snidely British about the whole thing.
 The times they have an actor read something a historical figure actually said are often actively painful, though.
 I’ve stopped hyperlinking footnotes. Did you notice?
This Island Earth is clumsy and weird. It’s also probably the second-best live action representation of large-scale, beautiful 1950s sci-fi that exists.
Meaning that, as much as I love the monster-centric, low-budget movies that constituted most of film science-fiction at that time, (and boy, do I ever) I lament that there is almost nothing from that decade that captures, in motion, the sleek, imaginative beauty of old pulp covers or comics. This is because almost nobody was going to throw that sort of money at a “B” picture in the 50s.
The greatest exception, and the reason why This Island Earth is a far second (but also very far ahead of whatever silly movie probably comes third), is Forbidden Planet, one of my all-time favorite films, hands down. Forbidden Planet has the perfect amount of backward silliness to still be fun and campy, while also being a beautiful, poignant, scary, and (at times) extremely smart movie. This Island Earth can’t really compete; but it did come out a year before Forbidden Planet, and has its own share of crazy, mind-blowing stuff.
It clearly made an impression on someone at the time. One of the opening scenes is almost exactly the same as the way silver age Green Lantern Hal Jordan would first be introduced to comics readers four years later. And the asteroid-ravaged planet of Metaluna looks shockingly like both the Earth and the planet Gamilas as they appear in Space Battleship Yamato in 1974.
And it’s no wonder the film managed to influence people; for all of its silliness, This Island Earth also provides amazing imagery and ideas. (Also: it’s way less sexist than most movies from the time — something that Forbidden Planet cannot claim.) It’s certainly the earliest movie I’ve ever seen to capture even a bit of the grandeur and spectacle of space opera, even if — like almost every other 50s sci-fi movie — it does still come down to a woman screaming while she runs, very slowly, away from a guy in a funny suit.
Even so, for every scene that’s silly, rushed, or wooden, This Island Earth has another that’s dazzling or genuinely creepy. The movie begins with a pair of Earth scientists being sent a mysterious catalogue of the strange parts needed to make what turns out to be alien technology. The idea of aliens who send their blueprints to a human scientist anonymously is so wonderfully weird and low-key, and a little dickish. I love it. This mystery does get solved, but many don’t. Which is great.
The rest of the plot moves around a lot, (too much, probably) and I won’t spoil it with a whole summary. But rest assured it gets to outer space. The human heroes end up doing almost nothing in the story though, which feels like it’s either a refreshing look at one human being’s insignificance, or it’s lazy plotting. The main alien, Exeter, is by far the movie’s most well-developed character, while the humans are pretty bland. Although strapping, baritone scientist Cal Meacham (played by an actor with an even better 1950s science hero name: Rex Reason) gets some wonderfully Reed Richards-esque moments of incorrigible curiosity in the early going.
We really do need to bring the “Science Hero” back.
Anyway, you don’t come to This Island Earth for the characters, or even really for the genuinely surprising and threatening story. You come to it for spaceships that carry meteors and hurl them into things; for the pretty colors and crazy designs and sense of SCALE.
If you ask me, the problem with America is that our army doesn’t have an arm dedicated to preserving, and performing, incredibly intricate traditional dances. These were not dancers dressed as soldiers, they were actual members of the armed forces. What really sells it, beyond the Red Army uniforms, is the pretense that they’re just kind of hanging out in their off-time.
I wrote a bit before about an old Soviet video like this one, and I still can’t help but love the stuff. It’s always wonderful to see another side of the people who were your culture’s stock villains for so long. I don’t personally remember the Cold War much, but a lot of those views and stereotypes still linger and cling to us. A Russian accent (or, really, an Eastern European one) still carries a lot of thematic, villainous weight in our pop culture.
Make sure you watch to the end, for the accordion.
I wrote a wonderful (I think) review of The Apocalypse Ocean: the newest book in Tobias Buckell’s Xenowealth series, and one with a particularly interesting origin story behind its writing. Then WordPress gobbled that motherfucker up and left no drafts. All gone. So here’s a short(?) version.
I jumped on that Kickstarter immediately when it started, and paid far more than I normally would for a book, so I was very invested in Apocalypse Ocean being good.
You see, I read the first Xenowealth book when I was living on a friend’s couch, having just moved to New York; the second on a different friend’s couch between apartments, during a very hot and emotional summer; the third in part while waiting to see not-yet-President Obama and John McCain speak, in person, on 9/11/08, because I’d won attendance in a school raffle[*]; and the most haunting section of this fourth book, Apocalypse Ocean, while sitting in a mikvah changing room, while my not-yet-wife spoke to a group of rabbis about her upcoming conversion. So what I’m saying is I have a bias here.
Nonetheless, it is very good, although it’s hard for me to say how it would stand up for a reader without knowledge of the rest of the series — technically standalone though it is. Buckell does not fuck around, and Apocalypse Ocean jumps right in and does the kind of setup that most stories would take multiple scenes and storylines to get across in a chapter. There are, perhaps, side characters who don’t get fleshed out as much as one would like, but the leads get perfect little arcs even as the story jumps from place to place. Before it’s all over, we’ve got cyborgs, aliens, clockwork robots, pickpockets, gangsters, soldiers, bubbles of fire, mass intelligences, and the much awaited return of a certain enduring character who’s managed to be in every book in the series. The locales are constructed perfectly, and the interlude in the middle of the book about genetically engineered humans living in slavery is harrowing and affecting.
It’s a fast-moving story with a bunch of really cool ideas that also takes a stark look at how utterly beaten down folk deal with adversity. Its action movie pace may not be for everyone, but if, like me, you don’t see “action movie pace” as a bad thing at all, you’ll likely enjoy it. If you’ve read any of the other books in the series, know that it is a worthy successor.
* Also, Usher was there.
I’m back from my honeymoon! Getting into a normal rhythm again, and have big plans to write much much more, both online and in my fiction.
But first! Here are three news stories I discovered this weekend that filled me with rage! I don’t usually write about the news, there are better places for that, but these just really got to me, and I didn’t see much else going around about them.
Oh man! What a great place to start! So it seems that a vulnerable Jewish immigrant group came to Israel in search of the exact thing that country promises all Jewish people: a home where one can feel safe and appreciated as a Jew. These Ethiopian Jews were repaid with race-based population control. Good lookin’ out, Israel!
FYI, I am a Jew and this shit sickens me. It isn’t the worst thing the Israeli government has done, but it does go even more explicitly against their mission statement, because it was done to other Jews. I really do wonder what the uber-Zionist element in our community that manages to excuse everything Israel does has to say about this one… but I don’t quite wonder it enough to go finding out. That’ll just be depressing.
Oh God. Now, I feel a bit guilty for being as angry as I am about this one. If I must be honest, then I must admit that I paid more attention to goings on in Mali once I heard about this burning books thing than I had when I’d heard about, you know, all those people killed. Obviously, the violence is worse than the burning of books. Duh.
Now that I’ve said that, I can also say that the burning a medieval library of stuff that mostly hasn’t been digitized yet is a goddamn travesty. They are directly fucking up Mansa Musa’s shit too, and he is one of the greatest and most interesting kings that ever lived. (P.S. I wrote at least two papers about him in college. So… bias.) Mansa Musa, if you don’t know, was largely responsible for making Timbuktu a world class city. He built that shit up, he made schools and hospitals and, I believe, libraries. He was a great Muslim king, and it was the Islamic influence of the time that gave such weight to the idea of writing everything down. The men who burned these ancient books claim the same religion, but they’re not doing a very good job with that.
- Despite more than 100 criminal charges, Ivan Vaclavik has dodged deportation for nearly four decades. He contends he can’t be sent home because his homeland no longer exists.
Now if this guy’s petty crimes were his only ones, this would just be kinda funny. Nonetheless, I’m reading Vanished Kingdoms right now, so seeing someone use “My country’s gone!” as a defense is strangely serendipitous.
And that’s that out of the way. Next I’ll probably review a Robin Hood book or talk shit about The Hobbit or something normal like that.