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November 26, 2006

Mike Ford: Occasional Works (Pt. Six)
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 02:11 PM * 10 comments

Catalog retail

We, in some strange custom’s employ, move in a rigorous tux.

I’ve owned one (not bought custom or new, of course) for a long time, and have very little occasion to wear it; the last was at Bruce Schneier’s pre-wedding party, which was formal. Before that, I wore it to Nebula banquets, where, yeah, it stood out; the only other guys who did were Ben Bova, Norman Payes, and Sam Lundwall. Occasionally the toastmaster would dress, though when Joe Haldeman did he wore sandals, and while there are many possible accidents of dress, wearing sandals with black** tie is not one of them.

The rig is still in the closet, waiting for an appropriate occasion, but for almost everything my tailored blue-gray three-piece*** is more than adequate. If I should ever win an Oscar(tm) I’d want Mizrahi. What works for Elmo works for me.

*There is an entire subgenre of screwball comedy about this. Your choice as to whether the high point is Hugh Griffith in Start the Revolution Without Me, Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. or Harpo Marx in anything.
**Actually, it and the tux were green.
***Yes, I know: “Three-piece what?” The usual answer is: MP5, short double shotgun, and .45 or 10mm backup. Hi, Jim.

Continue reading Mike Ford: Occasional Works (Part Six)

Odd cheat, now binned by vicar*

Wait, I saw this movie. It had Bruce Willis and Sandra Bernhard and lots of exploding crap. (Well, not literally, but there were probably cuts.) And that picture was lousy, but at least it wasn’t pompous-lousy. And it had one or two moments of actual invention, which Dan Brown’s entire career hasn’t managed. Love the moment in Digital Fortress where Super Cryptographer explains that a 64-bit cipherkey is 64 characters long. There are pretty average eight-year-olds who know the difference between a bit and a byte, and a few of them bust Windows-based systems the same way kids of my generation sent away for Sea Monkeys.*

And, yeah, you could make a big mess if you had just one lousy gram of antimatter, a speck so small it is positively weensy. You could also manage it with a billion metric tons of raspberry Jell-O plus Lake Baikal,** the difference being that there might actually have been that much raspberry Jell-O in modern history.

And I bet that even if the French guy were improvising dying messages like an Ellery Queen ghost on deadline, he wouldn’t have called the painting “The Mona Lisa.” Not when he could have turned its real name into CIA GONDOLA.
“Send absolutely every available asset we have to Rome!”
“Sir, they have gondolas in Venice.”
“Dammit, man, these people are devious!

Crummy crypto joke:
Cryptographer takes cheap date to the flat where he takes cheap dates. (“How was I to know/She was with the Russians too?”)
Cheap date says something to the effect of, “So, like, is this a real relationship?”
“Naah. This is my one-time pad.”

*The object of power …
**Homage — Stan Freberg, by Christo.

There is an inherent difficulty with Ancient Mystery Revealed! yarns, in that we are generally asked to accept that the clues have been lying around in more-or-less plain sight for centuries or millennia, and our characters have to put them together, run away from the bad guys, and blow a great many things up, all in under two hours of screen time.

That’s another difficulty: like practically all thrillers nowadays, these books are screen treatments gracelessly expanded to prose. There’s nothing wrong with conceiving one of the Big Scenes (the zeppelin, with its precious cargo of ancient Atlantean julienne slicers, bearing down on the Syracusan Duomo* as its Archimedian solar death mirrors rise from their crypts, click into place, and prepare for zep ignition), but it always helps if one actually makes it vivid and imaginable, instead of leaving that for the CGI dudes.

And Alan: I said “crummy,” didn’t I?

*Which (cue backstory) used to be a temple to Athena, who our renowned and fabulously cool curator heroes have discovered was the boss deity of Atlantis, before the Masonic copy-encodifyers

Encipherment in the sense of general algorithms — something you can in principle use to limit access to any message you transmit — is hard to make exciting for a broad audience (I didn’t say impossible). Sufficiently strong encipherment between two people who are well acquainted is not terribly hard, though it likely won’t be useful for absolutely any message. Two people who are close have lots of mutual information that others are unlikely to share, particularly movie-style goons in black shades.

If you were actually a writer — and this would work in a movie quite as well as a book — one could have a character murdered at the very outset of the yarn (half the thrillers you see start this way anyway) with the audience knowing only that he or she Knew Something Worth Killing For.

Goon: “Excuse me, sir or madam. Pardon my nondescript foreign accent. I am a stage goon of limited intelligence, hired for one reel only, and I and my associates are looking for an old and rare book of great importance to — uh, absolutely nobody.”
Resourceful Librarian: “I’m sorry, this is the British Library. Have you tried Foyles?”

Then the close friend/spouse/lover finds a page of dying endearments (with some oddity that indicated they were more than that), and has to go back to what those references meant when the victim was alive and they were together. Everything we would know about the dead person — and most of the other backstory — would emerge in those scenes, some of which the viewpoint character might now interpret in quite a different way.

If you did that right, you wouldn’t half need to blow anything up. Until the movie, of course.

Were the anagrams written in blood, a la A Study in Scarlet?

“This is a toughie.”
“Wait! It’s REACH! He wanted us to ‘reach’ for something!”
“I think he meant it’s under the CHAIR.”
“But —”
“Look, I know he was brilliant and now he’s dead and his tenure spot will go to that creep from the Pre-Columbian Pessaries Department, but we both know he couldn’t spell for beans.”

As for the book’s success, there are a lot of bestsellers that seem to get by on being a kind of Splenda-dusted nonfiction. Arthur Hailey stumbled into this formula with Hotel and refined it with Airport, and for the rest of his career the infodumps got denser as the characters went transparent. Michener’s done much the same thing with history — Centennial, Poland, and the like.

I think one reason is that a lot of affluent people feel a bit guilty about reading fiction. It’s just, you know, entertainment. It’s not helping your portfolio or giving you a bigger, uh, car. But if you learn something from it, that’s ROI and it’s okay. Even if what you pick up is doo-doo. da’Vinci, International Man of Mystery threw in a conspiracy theory, so you could learn something that was secret, at least from anyone who hadn’t read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Batman! And though it had its moment, there aren’t that many who have, because most people won’t read nonfiction at all. They’ll read rants, and they’ll look at picture books, but intellectual engagement costs effort. Remember that every equation in a popular work halves its audience, and power functions can turn nasty on you fast.

LeGuin noted some time back that people will buy bestsellers (and go to hit movies) because they can participate, through the Law of Contagion, in the money involved. Film is the most expensive art form we have, which is one reason it’s taken so seriously.

And there’s also the Book Everybody is Reading factor, which is like the Movie (or, if you live in New York, Broadway Show) Everybody is Seeing. It’s easy to get left out of the conversation if you don’t get the references. (Note that there’s at least one book annotating the references, so you can both not read the novel and pretend you know more about it than people who have. Which leaves you both about even.)

Well, the pulp prime text for that may have been the four volumes of The Inquisitor, a run of men’s adventure pbs (remember those?) about the Vatican’s top assassin, who answers to the Holy Office of Guess What and has to do fifteen days’ penance every time he terminates somebody with extreme unction.

They were written, under one of his several pseuds, by Martin Cruz Smith, and although reissues were announced not long after Gorky Park made it big, it’s never happened. The new editions were supposed to use the author’s real name, and it’s been claimed that he blocked that, at which point the publisher lost interest.

But, y’know, one could do a considerable bibliography of Catholic Conspiracy Yarns, divided into Fiction, Alleged Nonfiction, and Matthew Lewis Has a Lot to Answer For.

Hey, I was on good terms with one of the Grand Masters of the Priory of Zion.

The fact that Isaac wasn’t Catholic (and it shouldn’t have been too hard to determine that from public sources) doesn’t affect the connection to Great Conspiracies in the least.

And, of course, the Priory did actually exist, in that the forger and swindler* who set it up filed papers so they could legally collect memberships from aspiring conspirators.

*Who apparently used their skills successfully for the Resistance, making fake documents and pulling minor but real scams on the occupying Germans. Both, according to Timewatch’s excellent debunking episode, were pardoned after the war for their (rather small-time) prewar offenses. I think a highly entertaining history-based thriller could be built around two guys like that.

Tony Robinson has become a center point for history programming. I believe Time Team is still running in the UK after ten years (we got a handful of reruns, and nothing now) and The Worst Jobs in History, which is on History International Mondays at 11pm EST — “The Tudors” is tomorrow’s episode (the third of six — Roman/Dark Ages, Medieval, Tudor, Stuart, Georgian, and Victorian). Key line: at one moment in the Georgian episode, a historian shows Robinson what they’re going to be working with, and he wearily says, “If it’s a historical job, it’s going to involve pee, isn’t it?” (He’d already been a fuller for an eight-hour shift, and the number of other industries that used Urine, the Wonder Compound caused me to think seriously a nonfiction work — you know, something like Smelling the Longitude.)

“Feller offered me a whole shillin’ to scrape the pig-piles.”
“Yah, and he wants all the charcoal I can spare ‘im.”
“He’s also got a cartload o’ brimstone from someplace. I think he’s odd.”
“Well, I heard ‘e went off to China for a couple years. Man might come back odd from that.”
[Very loud boom, followed by distant castle tower falling over, and army running very fast making typical extra-player noises.]
“Gennamun, I think we is at one o’ them key ‘istorical moments.”

I personally see the renowned curator in the left-leg-straight right-leg-45-degrees right-arm-straight left-arm-45-degrees pose.

“His right hand, which was very stiff, because dead people do that, a condition that forensic experts call Rigor mortis, meaning ‘stiff dead guy.’ The rigid fingers were contorted, which is to say, bent, into the secret sign that the early Templars had shown to King Philip the Hardly Even Middling Where Certain Things Are Concerned — the sign later famous (notably when shown by Winston Churchill, who shall figure later in our thrilling story) as the ‘V for Victory,’ only reversed, so that it meant the opposite of victory, that is, defeat.”

They were frequently used for fish, and there’s a lovely one in the collections of the Cloisters which used to be on display, but wasn’t, the last time I was there.

In the case is a small white card reading Temporarily removed because, while we are glad to answer questions from visitors, there are some things a curator’s job does not include. No matter how damn renowned they are.

Meanwhile, while you were following serious news


Tissue Services for the Discerning
Affiliated with the Manette Clinic

“Discretion and Efficiency Since 1775”

Andrew: in re broadcasting and fame, while watching someone make a large affair out of a small television achievement recently, the phrase “per Aspel ad astra” came to mind. (I’m not sure if it would have come into the mind of anyone else on the planet, but there you are.)
Well, while “flash crowd” doesn’t mean exactly what he used it for (as we do not yet have the teleport system) there’s a reason that term got used, and it’s only partly the SF Geek Factor.

I have no use for the idea that predictiveness makes SF useful, but the “stopped clock” analogy really doesn’t apply. I’ll buy the “if you shoot enough bullets in the general direction of a target, one may well hit,” but the clock isn’t trying to say something about what time it is, or even what time it might be.

In which we are reduced to memes

Late to the party again.

Four jobs: Hospital orderly, computer consultant, slushreader, copyeditor.

Four movies: Adventures of Robin Hood, The Court Jester, Keaton’s The General, Duck Soup.

Four domiciles: Bloomington, IN; Brooklyn Heights: Philadelphia (University City); Minneapolis.

Four TV shows: Trauma (pattern here), Good Eats, Iron Chef (the Japanese version), any history show with Tony Robinson.

Four vacations: San Francisco, Sydney, north Wales, Leningrad.

Four websites: King of Zembla, Hullabaloo, The Agonist, present company.

Four favorite dishes: Bouillabaisse, German chocolate cake, dim sum, salmon-skin handroll.

Four places I’d rather be: Since I am visiting friends in Elise’s company, nowhere, but in the more general sense, London, Paris (St. Germain), San Francisco, Ireland (Co. Wicklow).

The Bloggies

I have a really big prime number right here, but the margin-script HTML has too small a buffer to hold it.

Open thread 57

“Aslan! Put down that mint jelly!

“Uh, I was just going to, you know, lie down with it.”

Another exciting moment from the annals of Stupid Criminality:

Just got a phish from someone pretending to be “Credit Union” (no other ID) asking for an “update” to credit information lest dire events follow. (Of course, I neither belong to a credit union or have a card from them.) Anyway, this one included the datum:

Card Number On File: XXXX-XXXX-XXXX-XXXX (Not shown for security purposes)

Now, you all know how this is displayed by real companies, so I won’t point it out here. The point being, what the hell would be the purpose of showing a number with all the digits suppressed?

The URL (the real one, not the displayed one) was pretty funny, too, but I won’t mention that. For security reasons.

Q: Golly, Dr. Mike, how do I tell a real message from my credit card company from one of those fishburger things?
A: First, look at the URL. Chase Manhattan is not likely to have relocated its security operations to the Turks & Caicos Islands. Second, while one cannot always rule out a major financial institution hiring folks what can’t not make theys pronounses suck up to thems object to do those web desing, misspelling the bank’s name is a strong indication. Third, have you ever gotten a real e-mail from your bank about anything like this?

Linkmeister, you have a point. Indeed, Consolidated Large Financial Institution LLC* might well have moved its online security to “,” though I’d defer to Bruce Schneier for a definitive statement.

*”Liability Limited to Customers”

Parsimony and refinement

The “plots” of the ULTIMA fantasy games were largely plot coupon collection. That and hewing a swath.

Most of the computing power available to the CRPGs of the time went into putting some immobile on the screen and straining to do the math of the combat engine. There were games (some of them pretty good) that came with printed books of descriptive text; you would be instructed to read graf 143 to find out what was in a room, because there wasn’t enough memory to store all that text. Interaction with characters was generally limited to hearing a very brief tale about how they needed an [Eldritch Veeblefetzer,] which was in the possession of a [Fuliginous Myrmidon,] who lived in a [Psychedelic Shack.] Getting there would involve your 8-bit character crossing green terrain (forest), brown terrain (wasteland), black terrain (caves) and sometimes blue terrain (wet), fighting randomly generated hostiles all the way, in order to bring back the Thing, for which you would be rewarded with some experience points, a nifty goon-basher, and directions to the next dispatch office. Technical sophistication has made it possible to have somewhat more complex conversations, and something like a recognizable storyline (even branching storylines, which some designers lived in terror of, but wow, is that another story). And now we have online, which makes it possible for actual live people to have interactions with you, like killing you and taking your stuff to sell on eBay. Books are way behind in this department, except maybe for books about becoming a rich internet businessperson (or a rich novelist) overnight.

I don’t necessarily see the Plot Coupon as the problem; as LeGuin said, there are always going to be quests over sea and through dark forests, and which sounds better as a motivation for being exposed to tiger prawns and rye-crazed moose:

“At the end of your journey lies fabulous wealth and power, and vengeance on those who have wronged you!”


“At the end of your journey you’ll feel a lot better about yourself.”

Don’t answer at once, think about it for a few chapters. The point being that the story (the force of nature) is about what happens to the characters, good, bad, hench, and comic-relief. The plot (the mechanical device) is just the excuse for being up to your keister in Heavily Armed Objectivist Space Bats in the first place.

I’ve always thought the “dull” musical numbers in the Marx Brothers movies were there to give your ribs a chance to relax.

That may very well be an actual effect, but I don’t think it’s intentional. It’s more probable that, in the early MGM films, Irving Thalberg was trying to make them more like what audiences expected from a “comedy;” a romance, heroes and villains, and musical interludes.* The Paramount pictures weren’t big hits — as everybody knows, Duck Soup was enough of a flop when released that the studio let the boys go — but now they’re usually considered superior to all the MGMs but Opera and Races. (I don’t disagree with this.)

*I did an essay Once Long Ago on what A Night at the Opera would have been like had it been a conventional, Marxless MGM film of the period, and for comparison’s sake what Warners might have done with the same material. It’s actually pretty easy to do, down to picking stars, story elements, and some crew, if you know the studio-system films of the time.

But I loved that their super-wizard talked like an extra in a “Bowery Boys” movie—or liked Ben Grimm in the 1960s “Fantastic Four” cartoons—I wonder if it was the same guy doing the voice?

Avatar the Wizard was Bob Holt, an actor with a long career in ‘toon voices. Ben Grimm (in the 60’s version) was Paul Frees, who you already know was an actor with a long career in ‘toon voices.

The slightly earlier Marvel cartoon series — the one with the nightmarishly catchy theme songs — was produced by Grantray-Lawrence. One of their directors on the show was a kid named Ralph Bakshi. Everything is connected. That’s why it shorts out so often.

The discussion of “if you, like,* wanted to take ou the X-Men, and you didn’t have a whole miniseries and lots of new characters to do it, what technique would you use?” has missed one of the obvious choices:

“Gentlemen and obligatory token lady, SOFoDoSATReMuFoGAA** Research Division has finally perfected our Ultimate Weapon. As we all go heavily armed as a matter of personal safety, I will skip the PowerPoint presentation and go straight to the reveal. I give you … the Mutant Operations Field Reaction Angst Grenade, or, as we in ASSWIT*** call it, MUTOFRAG.”

*All fannish hypothetical discussions must include at least one interlarded “like.”
**Secret Office For Doing Something About Those Reprehensible Mutants For Good And All. A division of SHIELD they forgot about decades ago but fund anyway.
***Acronymic Shorthand Systems, Word Initializing Team. An outside contractor with connections to governments and conspiracies in both the Marvel and DC Universes.

And then there’s Lord of the G-Strings, in which the sex is numbingly dull (and inexplicit, at least in the late-night-cable cut) and the stuff in between is reasonably funny. There is in fact a scene in which the people who have arrived for a Titanic Battle Between Good and Evil have to wait around with increasing impatience while two elf-maidens finish going at it, which might be an internal critiquey sorta thing.

Oh, and speaking of the Read Page Whatever Test: Alien vs Predator* just flickered through on cable. Before all the exploding gooshy bits, the leader of the human expedition shows the disposable minor characters an image of a structure whose purpose is completely mysterious to anyone who’s not in the audience. His line is “The experts tell me it’s a pyramid.” One wonders how much expertise that required.

*Not to be confused with an episode of Law and Order, though the presence of Lennie Briscoe would have helped it immeasurably.

“Before I Kill You, Mr. Bond …” isn’t unavailable. It had to be renamed (SPECTRE keeps an adamantium grip on its IP), and is now called “James Ernest’s Totally Renamed Spy Game.” It’s now got full-color cards and some rule tweaks. (It also costs more than the old monochrome cards, but that’s Progress v2.0bis.)

Backing up to the “Well, I’ve got this brilliant idea, but there’s no story to go with it” analemma, a stefnal gimmick of considerable antiquity is “Who does this hurt?” That is, what people are going to be put in a hard corner by the Cylert — I mean, the marvelous technosocial advance. It’s applicable well beyond tech-based sf (or fantasy working a similar groove).

Bruce D: Politely, I think that was what I said about Night at the Opera; Thalberg gave the audience the plot elements it was expecting. Pacing was a component of that, but not the only one, and the Marxes had already acquired an education in comic timing. Thalberg — who, unlike a lot of movie moguls, had grown up reading a lot of books — also tested the scripts with live stage versions, tossing out jokes that didn’t work.

Having been acquainted with Phil Foglio for nigh on to thirty years now, I’m pretty confident in saying that Agatha is not a fantasy amplification of himself. (A fantasy figure in various ways, yes.) Also, Agatha’s not omnicompetent, nor is she the only Spark in the woodpile; other characters, including some of the less nice ones, are allowed to be brilliant and diem-salving as well. And in that world, nobody has to invent sex, though building ancillary contraptions for it is always a possibility.

And the idea of a connection between Gort and Lord Gort is fascinating, in the My Zeppelin Has More Duraluminum Flying Buttresses than Your Zeppelin sort of way, but, well, y’all do remember that the yarn started life as a véritable sf story, right? In which the robot’s name was Gnut, a name it’s not too hard to understand a screenwriter changing, along with just about everything else about it/him.

diamagnetic levitation, which has been demonstrated to work for frogs.

Except when it doesn’t, whereupon it rains the aspirational little croakers.

“I dunno, Scooter. I’ve never done this for a live audience before.”

Also, just because people have reasons why the eagles would be unlikely to work doesn’t mean that it would have been a bad decision to try it.

There is, however, only one try possible. If whoever (or whatever) is carrying the Ring is sent into Mordor and doesn’t make it, All Is Lost, as they say in highish fantasy.

And it isn’t a military SF novel; it’s a story in which Good wins because its agents, despite flaws and temptations, are morally stronger than their opposition.* Frodo carries the Ring because he is willing to carry it, though he doesn’t know the way. In the particular logic of this kind of story, that makes him the best possible choice. Elrond & Co. have certainly been discussing what to do about The Ring Crisis, and in a different book hearing them quarrel could have been interesting. But, given the nature of the fable, they would have had to come to the conclusion that neither force nor guile can defeat an enemy who is all force and guile; the best they can do is delay catastrophe until the Ringbearer can reach his goal. The book instead does this over its whole length, by example. Story is a … well, you all know that one.

*Sometimes that moral strength is signified by being the True King, which has a rather sour taste for many of us these days … not least because for a lot of people it still holds as a belief.

Ah, more fumettopazzia.

In the first movie, Xavier comments that he can’t read Magnus’s mind, and reasonably assumes that the helmet shields him. (Hmm. SHIELD. The Bureau of Useful Technological Toys, and its Head. No, that way lies fumettopazzia terminale.)

Jack Kirby’s original design (back when Magneto went in for a lot of red, and a cape, and called his posse the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, just so you knew they were mean mutant mofos) was based on a Greek helmet (the “Corinthian” helmet), and like the original had a nasal, a piece of metal covering the nose. It allowed him to show expressions (especially the Burning-Eyed Beware My Frickin’ Wrath Look) but pretty effectively concealed his appearance. (Stan once observed that you couldn’t even tell how old he was.) But in a movie it would have severely limited the expressiveness of an actor.

… the first thing “F&S” makes me think of isn’t Frodo & Sam but Flanders & Swann.

One must be careful what Words of Power one uses . .

Oh, life is sweet and simple with the Hobbits of the Shire,
We take our breakfast in two sittings here;
Next comes a lunch alfresco, and dining by the fire,
And life is beer and skittles, and more beer.

And then a roving wizard brought his caravan to town
‘Twas merry (Hobbits celebrate a lot)
He joined in with the party, and burned several buildings down,
And then he started to unfold the plot.

Our Mr. Frodo’s got a Ring around his neck
He’s on a Quest, his courage he must prove
It whispers in his hindbrain, and it’s made his life a wreck,
A Ring that Fairy Liquid can’t remove.

So off the Hobbits wander for a fateful rendezvous
And near run-ins with Darkness on a horse,
A meeting in a tavern with a scurvy lout or two,
And lots of roadside barbecue, of course.

And after such adventures they arrive at Rivendell,
A sort of Castle Howard-in-the-Glade,
A green and pleasant venue where the Elves do elfly dwell,
And Elrond sees his guests aren’t overstayed.

Our Mr. Frodo’s got a Ring around his neck,
Inspiring envy in all who they meet,
His foe’s a foely artist who has armies at his beck,
While he has … very road-resistant feet.

And so our daring doers on their doughty deed are sent,
With cloaks of green and food that’s spoilage-free,
We have a rugged Ranger, who’s got issues of descent,
A mighty wizard from the RSC,

A Dwarf with iron scantlings and an Elf with savoir-faire,
A warrior who’s bound to come to grief,
A Hobbit for the carrying and one with lots to bear,
And two more as the comedy relief.

Our Mr. Frodo’s got a Ring around his neck,
The Dark is dreadful, but the Light is strong
An epic tale is powerful, and numinous as heck
But what it is primarily is long.

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The life expectancies of books

The Outdoor Girls at the Hostess House
Or, doing their best for the soldiers

Some things never change.

And referring an earlier comment, not all the “nursing” books, even in the glorious Harding era, were about marrying Dr. Right (something you’d have to be darn innocent of nursing to think of as a primary goal*). Cherry Ames was much too busy to worry about warming somebody’s chilly speculum. (Joanna Russ did once express a worry that, as the line blurred between SF and Books Ordinary Real Folks Read, we’d get Interstellar Nurse. Hmm. I think Boskone is very happy I didn’t think of that four months ago.)

*Nobody suggests that guys go into nursing because they want to pick up babes who wear Betadine on their pulse points.

I think the reason that the “Forbidden Planet” novel you mentioned a few entries up is so dopey (if the blurb can be believed)

Judging Fifties paperback SF by the cover blurbs is like complaining that Apollo 11 didn’t live up to Cyrano de Bergerac’s description of a voyage dans la lune.

I haven’t read the book — and it certainly wasn’t the source for the movie, the source being some play by that Shakespeare guy, along with the idea of a monster that was invisible, and therefore wouldn’t cost anything (MGM changed its mind about this, and brought in Joshua Meador for animation).

But there was a discussion of it in the Cinefantastique double issue (which I unfortunately no longer own), and one of their comments was that it contains a scene in which Doc Ostrow does an autopsy on Altaira’s pet monkey (which has been killed somehow or other), and finds that it has nothing inside, no internal organs, just a kind of organic lattice “no more use than a stuffing of cotton.” The implication is that Morbius made the animal as an early experiment with the Krell Machine. That’s a perfectly valid SF notion — but it does contradict Morbius’s claim that he can’t consciously use the device, and the story-as-told seriously breaks down if he’s lying about that.

And, in actual fact, good authors very often do the best they can when working for money, but run into external demands (particularly when turning screenplays into novels) that can’t be ignored. Reading Isaac’s novelization of Fantastic Voyage is an exercise in watching a scientifically acute writer try to handwave past the gaps in the plot, the most notorious being the eensy surgeons refill their air supply from the normal-sized molecules in the lung* and their abandoning the wrecked submarine (and a dead guy) inside the patient’s frontal lobe. By that point, of course, the hands have reached relativistic speeds.

Though he did try something interesting, even though it mostly passes unnoticed. Early on, there’s a discussion between Grant the Spy and one of his bosses about the possibilty that a double agent could be under sufficient hypnosis and drugs that he wouldn’t know he was a Bad Guy until events triggered him to act. This actually makes the plot make a little more sense (though it doesn’t explain how a saboteur manages to break equipment unseen by four other people in a boat the size of an SUV).

*”There isn’t by chance a little bitty miniaturizer aboard, is there?”
“Why, it just so happens that there is.”

Interstellar nurses and space dentists… Did James White ever have those show up in his Sector General stories?

There are people who think that a hospital could be run without a nursing staff. James White wasn’t one of them.

Many of those who do are creating programming for the Sci-Fi Channel.

To clarify, what Russ was talking about wasn’t the presence of nurses in sf, but the introduction of nurse-as-stereotype; formula fiction with an sf veneer (or, since veneering is a skilled craft, a patchy coat of cheap polyurethane).

When you say that the Skiffy Channel has people who believe an hospital can be run without nurses, are you thinking of something specific?

Staggering incompetence? Absolute ignorance of story values, believable dialogue, or characterization? Eight movies a week about giant carnivorous bugs, with a collective budget that might buy two Big Macs and a Coke? A central assumption that “sci-fi” is to be interpreted in its most toxic 1950s fashion?

I don’t think that everything they show is terrible, but something’s wrong when you’re in the middle of an action thriller about dinosaurs and wonder what’s on The O’Reilly Factor.


In which culture moves from a traditional base in a consensual collective endeavour to forms which are rationalised by commodification and led by individuals with interests which are separated from the purposes of the population as a whole

I feel I really must try to write a song that is a demand for women.

I believe Oscar Hammerstein II beat you to it (with the line “What ain’t we got/Ya know damn well”) but I’ll swipe a metric from him anyway:

Guy tucked in corners remembering faces
Songs about lipstick in hard-to-reach places
Stiff-upper-lippishmen cooing for ducks
All of them saying that solitude sucks

Gable and Lombard off cutting some capers
Cary and Rosalind peddling their papers
Bogie and Baby igniting a spark
That’s how we learned what you do in the dark

Audible breathing that fogs up your glasses
(Don’t mind the Parker who groused about passes)
Sacking the temples and bending the frames
These are the clich és we have about dames

When the night falls
And there’s silence
After those goodbyes
I think how I feel when a girl’s by my side
And then it intensifies.

Open thread 59

The Ivory would sublime into the ridiculous.

I hope you all know this will be on the final. Bring two wrapped bars, a #2 pencil, and a pressure suit. “I used one of my bars to check for leaks” is not an acceptable excuse.

Clipped, without modification, from a Starwood Hotels e-mail:

Experience True RedemptionSM

Halle-verbal infix-lujah.

Marshmallow aerogel. Mix with comet dust for a Kuiperfluffernutter.

My suspicion about the “drowning to live through outgassing” is that it wouldn’t buy you enough time to make it worth doing (and it sure wouldn’t improve your chances of making it to cover on your own). Back when HAL and Dave were having their little set-to, the estimate being knocked around was that you could survive about four minutes (which is longer than breath-holding time).

This doesn’t mean you couldn’t make use of it in a hardish skiffoid yarn, to buy the Essential Eighteen Seconds (and “Take a Deep Breath” appeared eleven years before “2001”), and of course it is on the Short List of Generally Applicable Rules that if you’re confronted with an absolutely, positively Fatal Situation, (vacuum, immersion in molten steel, chosen to beam down with the Captain) then anything is worth trying. The Mythbusters have pretty clearly established that sticking your finger in the 12-gauge bore is useless, but it might be considered a bravura gesture.

Jordin — I immediately thought of three variant ways to use the blimp aerogel for Evil (by which I mean genuinely bad things, not, you know, Fun Evil), but then, that’s what I get paid for.

Of course, as you note, if Tommy Lee Jones simply stared hard at the stuff it would disintegrate, so we’re probably safe.

And besides, Evil, like many science fiction writers, is a lazy bastard. It’s far easier to throw a brick through a window than to first figure out how to make an aerogel carry a brick through a window* and then make the stuff, just so you’ll get a bit of grudging admiration on BoingBoing.

*No, I don’t have a way to do this, though I’ll bet there’d be a nice DARPA grant in it if I did. High risk and payoff, as they say.

“Programming in COBOL is like trying to drive a large dead whale along the beach at Daytona.” — a friend of mine, who got paid to drive whales.

Mais ou sont les chards d’antan?

Oh, and wrt the “Things I Learned from My Patients” Sidelight, and the most interesting of the “patient tried to eat the drug evidence” stories, I usedta live in University City (Philadelphia), and in another college town for ten years before that. One must understand that college is more than books you haven’t read and TAs who speak a dialect of Old Martian. It’s about acquiring life experience, and breaking down the barriers that separate the resident’s forceps from your viscera.

We mostly didn’t watch ‘Lost in Space’. (Of course, we thought it would have been greatly improved if Dr Smith had gotten what he deserved.)

Left the Robinsons an an airless rock,* formed an alliance with the Klingon Empire, and used the Robot to conquer Earth? (This would include conquering whatever Foreigh Power had put him aboard to begin with, but that would have led to the immortal “Kahless Meets Khrushchev, as Reported by Walter Cronkite” sequence.

Mashup fanfic is the new polka-dot.

And of course “Lost in Space” is famously the series that CBS had already acquired, and therefore turned down Gene Roddenberry’s space show.

If there’s a competition for “weirdest Irwin Allen Moment,” though (and I might actually wanna be on the Worldcon panel), I would suggest it is The Story of Mankind, an all-star adaptation** of a book by Henrik Willem van Loon,*** in which Ronald Colman (as The Human Spirit) and Vincent Price (as the Devil) argue about whether humanity is worth not blowing up (with its new invention the H-Bomb) in front of judge Cedric Hardwicke.

There follow lots of bizarre recreations of historical events, played by an even more bizarre collection of actors. Some are actually inspired choices (Peter Lorre as Nero), some are weird-city (Groucho Marx as Peter Minuit, swindling the Indians out of Manhattan, Hedy Lamarr as Joan of Arc), and, well, Dennis Hopper as Napoleon.

Turner Classic has run this (it was from Warners, and doesn’t seem to be out on video, further indicating the abject failure of our educational system).

*There are, of course, no airless rocks in space, which is fortunate, since the mission did not seem to have provided spacesuits.

**For certain asymptotic values of the word.

***This is America. No fault attaches to having missed Henrik Willem van Loon.

****Chico and Harpo are also there. The Marxes have no scenes together. Harpo plays Isaac Newton. The prosecution rests.

“Gosh, another new world to land on, explore, and get sent packing by a gigantic something-or-other. It certainly is a crowded old galaxy, isn’t it?”

“I sense danger! Danger! Danger, I tell you!”

“Now, you see, that’s the whole problem in a perspex-craniumed nutshell.”

Could be contemplated, Charlie old bream, but would be most dreadfully housecat-flung in the execution thereof, don’t you know.

Hey, remember when we were talking about aerogel, and, like, evil purposes and stuff?

Buy yours here:

Via Boingboing, naturally. Also, if you decide to buy a box of goodies from United Nuclear, and you get the big neodymium magnets, and some of us with metal bits are in the nabe, ring a bell and shout “High Gauss!” from time to time, okay?

If we ever captured a saucer, it’s probably still sitting in a Nissen hut on some godforsaken deserted airfield on the east coast somewhere.

And this is a bad thing? The only reason the crowd from the Pentagon’s Office of Cost-Plus Imbecility hasn’t “borrowed” it is that Sgt Benson (the oldest serving NCO in the British military) won’t let them touch anything without proper authorisation. “Now, gentlemen, you remember what happened about the Giant Robot, don’t you? Those people had ‘credentials’ here and back again. Also, your Colonel’s an Auton with polythene bits falling off.”

I think you mean Sgt Benton.

You are, of course, correct.

If there’s one thing that characterizes runagate Time Lords, it is absent-mindedness.

I know I gave the Enlightnenment a solid goosing a couple of regenerations ago, but there are things, like water clocks, revolutionary movements, and custards, that require constant attention or entropy will have its joke.

There are distinct positive aspects to the United States possessing the Time Tunnel, provided that it is constructed precisely to the original Allen specifications.

1. The unit as installed is only capable of moving people randomly between important historical locations. An unspecified component prevents it from bringing them back to zero baseline. The advantages of this are obvious.

2. The selectiveness of the targeting (which was clearly not a design spec; it is still uncertain whether some “temporal nexus hunting” effect (similar to TARDIS Homing) is involved, or whether this is a corollary of Alligator Relativity.* At any rate, the educational potential would be worth a great deal. The downside, of course, is the Sherred Condition,** which will be familiar to many here.

3. A constant dialectic was observed in which Tony would say “You can’t change history,” and Doug would nod and attempt to change it. However, temporal continuity for “known facts” was always conserved, whether the facts were genuine (Pearl Harbor) or not (Merlin the Magician, who in any remake should be played by Penn Jillette). This means that when prominent individuals are honored by sending them to visit important historical nexi, they won’t be able to do a blankety-blank thing. Not only does this preserve historical continuity, it will be a whole lot of fun to watch, say, Dick Cheney at the siege of Acre, or G. W. Bush at the Alamo. The DVD sales alone could offset the project’s cost.

*”When you’re up to your ass in A. Mississippiensis, time acquires an intensely focused significance.”

**”Nobody really wants to know what really happened. Really.

Fiction and truth

They’re classified as fantasy.

So now I’m imagining Profiles in Courage as ghosted by the other T. H. White, in which John Quincy Adams learns about the responsibilites of the people’s servants by being turned into a badger by the Masonic wizard Benjamin Franklin.

One should be careful. Anthologists are listening.

[History Channel narrator voice:]

Wenn ist das Nunstuck git ein Slotermeyer? Ja! Beierhund das Oder die Flipperwald gesput! But by this stage of the war, Ludendorff had become convinced that there was a goblin living in his hat, who could only be placated by dressing in a bat suit and humming Strauss waltzes. Meanwhile, the news from the Eastern Front was bad; German troops had failed to conquer Irkutsk, from which Hindenburg* had hoped to achieve Anschluss with the grinning whale in the sailor hat.

[James Burke interrupts]

At this point, history was about to take a divergent route. Some suggest that, after four years of war, it had simply gotten lost; others, that it was trying to sneak off for a hot weekend in Paris with a couple of Great Men on Horses. And what has all this to do with Edison’s early work on the talking light bulb.

[Peter Woodward arrives, leading several blokes with assorted medieval bashing bits, and we go to a promo for Alternate Antiques Roadshow, featuring the typewriter the Emperor Claudius used for his memoirs.]

*Insert gasbag joke here.

Meanwhile, back at crap fantasy pretending to be history …

Look up Anatoly Fomenko’s History: Fiction or Science? Ran across this in a full-page ad in New Scientist; the drooling US Amazon reviews are mostly repeats by a handful of Europeans (not necessarily sock puppets), who don’t actually offer any proof for the author’s, uh, interesting version of history, but, hey, understanding that there’s a conspiracy is better than actually knowing squat, right?

The central thesis is that pretty much everything accepted as history was invented about 1500. I’m not terribly sure why, but Fomenko seems to have a notion that the “real” history of Christianity has been obfuscated by various Bad People.

For instance, the Christ was born in AD 1053 and crucified 33 years later, in Rome.

And the “Old” Testament is newer than the New one, and describes stuff that happened in what we benighted louts call the Middle Ages.

Riiiiight. I would say “and Oi’m the Queen o’ Sheba,” but for all I know I might be. It seems to be grounded in the “a big enough lie explains everything” excuse; if you can actually buy into the idea that Jesus was around during the various Norman enterprises,* then there is probably nothing you wouldn’t take for a quarter.

There are two volumes of the “New Chronology” out in English; there are apparently seven in the original Russian, though apparently the first one has the Hot Stuff, and the rest is the author insisting that he’s right. Oh, and he used computers. So it must be true. (He is a mathematician, apparently of some distinction. There’s more than one thing I could say about that, and no, I have nothing against mathematicians.)

If you collect this sort of thing, you might want to pony up your $25; on the other hidden hand, there will probably be a pool of used copies before you can say “Charles Fort.”

*And did those feet/In not particularly ancient times/Oh, forget it.

A most wondrous Labor-saving Contraption

Boromir’s exultant announcement “They’ve got a cave troll!” with the immediate prospect of slaughter, strongly implies that he had spent time moderating

Take My Logline … Please

Reading the letters sent by the people who buy the “Publishers Will Pay You Hundreds to Read Books!” scam often come close to inspiring violence against the dreckpiles who run them. (Admittedly, once in a while you feel that way about a slush ms, but that’s another story.)

They are generally not from people who are looking for a soft touch, but from people who are working hard at dead-end jobs (“peanut sorter” sticks to the roof of my memory), and who haven’t got any salable skills except that they like to read. The letters are highly formularized (the scammers usually send a “suggested form” for the query letter, or an actual fill-in-the-blanks form, and I’m really not trying to be mean when I say that it is apparent from them that very few have the language skills even to read slush. One of the stock line-items is “what makes you special,” and some of those responses are a glimpse of the abyss.

The loophole that makes this technically legal is the usual “if it happened once” routine; some books — almost always nonfiction — are passed in manuscript to someone with expert credentials on the subject, and the expert receives a fee, usually of a few hundred dollars, for her time and knowledge. Thus, “people get paid hundreds of dollars just to read books.” The part about having specialized knowledge never makes it into the pitch.

The thing about those films, Dave, is that they aren’t remotely subtle; I suppose one could rewrite Der Ewige Jude so that it was about … some other religious group, or maybe space aliens, and Hitlerjunge Quex (which is about a nice young man who’s killed by a gang of Communist street thugs, and allegedly has some factual basis) would make a swell Afterschool Special, but I’m not at all sure what purpose would be served. Formula can serve anybody’s purpose; all that matters is who’s kicking the dog.

Indeed, I suspect that their rewrite guy, even if he’s not familiar with the movies I cited,* routinely makes changes to remove extreme ideas — some of which were very likely deliberate, since extremists wanna make movies too — and excuses it by saying “that’s what Hollywood does, and you do it our way or it doesn’t happen.”

Anyway, here are some swell loglines, like anybody cares:

Pentateuch Nights
“It’s the Bible … as an epic.”

Hoover, Dammed if You Do!
“Celebrates our second greatest President, big construction projects, and Las Vegas.”

Women are From Mars
“Like that Spielberg movie, with sex. May have to alter the title for rights reasons.”

Rage of the Barbarian Women
“Do we really need to sell this? Women. Barbarians. Rage. Our poster line is ‘The First Swords, Sorcery, and PMS Picture.’ And really, how much is Sandahl Bergman gonna cost?”

*Yeah, I have way too much of this crap in my memory.


The room is still warm
As its windows fill with snow
The wheel is at rest.


I was a rocket scientist in a previous life, but was buried deep in the lab,

Ah, the Hero’s journey through the Underworld. Were you buried with a shifting spanner and a flask of WFNA as grave goods, which were useful in emerging from the Stygian stygery, or did John D. Clark, in the guise of the Abbe Faria, appear to guide you to the fabulous Tsiolkovsky fortune?

There’s not a novel in this, fortunately, but it might be worth a short story. In fact, the paragraph above is more than sufficient.

Opting out of education

Is this really about literature? Or could this possibly be an anti-evolution law disguised as an anti-pornography law?

It’s an anti-education law, designed to be extensible to any curriculum or concept that someone doesn’t want presented. Naughty literature, evolution, cosmology, socialist thought (or any particular stripe of political or economic thought that varies with a Received Wisdom), and sooner or later physics (to avoid a Godwinian Moment, I will observe that all sorts of people, in all sorts of places, who can’t parse relativity decide that it must, for that reason, be incorrect; they’d apply the same thing to differential calculus if they could get through the front door on it).

Opposition to what we broadly consider “higher education” isn’t remotely new. In America, it’s always existed, but wasn’t very potent when only the sons of the aristocracy attended college, and there acquired mainly a “classical” education. It expanded slowly, with a partial bye for physicians and lawyers, since people generally wanted their doctors to know something about the craft, and law was considered what we’d now call a skilled trade, but things didn’t really hit the impeller until the turn of the (last) century, when large numbers of European immigrants arrived, many with university educations, and far more with the idea that a university education was a positive good, regardless of class. They started getting their kids into college, and colleges started expanding. The nativists (as well as the immigrants-turned-nativists*) lit into this with their typical psychomotor fury, and it has not subsided. The present Horowitzian subsidized fraud-o-rama draws much of its support from this direction. A development is the root idea that education is supposed to indoctrinate** with Exact Truth, rather than stimulate the self-directed desire to learn, and therefore if any idea other than Exact Truth is being presented, in whatever context, the students are being “indoctrinated” with it.

*Yes, I know this is in a sense redundant, but we are talking about what Lazarus Long might have called “the heritage peasantry.”

**The nicest word I could plausibly use.

Comments on Mike Ford: Occasional Works (Pt. Six):
#1 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2006, 12:49 AM:

Found a copy of The Scholars of Night over the holiday; reading it now.

#2 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2006, 10:10 AM:

Scholars of the Night is a book where (to quote Mike)

... the close friend/spouse/lover ... has to go back to what those references meant when the victim was alive and they were together.

...If you did that right, you wouldn’t half need to blow anything up. Until the movie, of course.

If this was a fairer universe, Scholars would have been a Hollywood blockbuster, and Tom Clancy would still be selling insurance.

#3 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2006, 02:11 PM:


"Scholars of Night is a book where...... the close friend/spouse/lover ... has to go back to what those references meant when the victim was alive and they were together."

Now that I know there is such a book, I will go and acquire it posthaste. When I read that quote, I thought "Oh, I hope he wrote it." And it turns out yes, he did.

All of these rememberings are so wonderful.

#4 ::: Pedantic Peasant ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2006, 03:51 PM:

I agree with Caroline.

I'm sure there is still a part seven and eight pending.

Once all these "collected wisdoms" are received, is there any chance of:
A) "snaking" them together, with a link to part II at the end of Part I, and
B) a permanent or semi-permanent link to all of them, maybe through the "Globally useful" links?

#5 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2006, 04:55 PM:

There are not one but two responses to me collected in here. I'm not sure how to feel about that: I think I'll go with pleased.

#6 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 09:05 AM:

You may already have this quote (from one of the Works above) standing alone somewhere on "Making Light", but if not it deserves a place of its own: "Everything is connected. That's why it shorts out so often."

Such glorious wit, now lost to us.

#7 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 09:22 AM:

"Everything is connected. That's why it shorts out so often."

Would it be inappropriate to disseminate that quote, provided Mike is shown to be its author? (If not, I apologize most profusely and will slink away into the darkness until the wounds heal.)

#8 ::: Laurence ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2006, 10:16 AM:

There is a response to me up there too. Oh. I corrected John M. Ford about something. And I am even more embarrassed about it now than I was then.

#9 ::: Jonathan David Ward ::: (view all by) ::: July 20, 2011, 10:03 PM:

You know, with Mike, it's almost impossible to know what responses are his honest opinions and which ones are jokes. He was clever and thoughtful and too damn funny.

"We're not lost. We're locationally challenged."

#10 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2012, 09:35 AM:

Alas, but on the other hand, your spam report caused me to click back to this topic and read through it again, which led to helpless giggling. It was this bit that did it:

And then there’s Lord of the G-Strings, in which the sex is numbingly dull (and inexplicit, at least in the late-night-cable cut) and the stuff in between is reasonably funny. There is in fact a scene in which the people who have arrived for a Titanic Battle Between Good and Evil have to wait around with increasing impatience while two elf-maidens finish going at it, which might be an internal critiquey sorta thing.

Watching that sort of thing with Mike and hearing his commentary was priceless. I remember that occasion. Vividly. So I for one am grateful for the side effect of the spammage just now.

*resumes helpless giggling*

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