Friday, December 31, 2010

Deep Blue Sea


I’ve been afraid of sharks ever since I watched Jaws, but it took a less well known work of Peter Benchley’s – a short story called The Day The Sharks Died – to make me fascinated by them. Now I’m convinced that sharks get a far worse rap than they deserve.

And nowhere is this more obvious than in the film Deep Blue Sea, though to be fair, nearly everyone in it is a nonentity or a caricature. The sharks just get treated the same way as the rest of the characters, that’s all.

But to start at the beginning, the premise of this film is that a scientist, Dr. Susan McAlester, is extracting serum from mako sharks’ brains to cure Alzheimer’s. As scientists always do in bad horror movies, though, she can’t leave well enough alone and so she genetically engineers sharks with bigger brains that produce more serum.

All together now : “She tampered in God’s domain.”

Naturally, that makes the sharks superintelligent and the scientist considerably less so. Seriously, who would do this without building in some kind of failsafe mechanism, like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park all being female and lysine-deficient?

I did like Aquatica, the research facility out in the midst of the ocean. Communications tower, undersea labs, a huge pool for the sharks, security cameras, crawlways and so on… this place could have been used to tell a much better story.

This one, though, is dead in the water. Take the sharks, another CGI creation that had the potential to be far more. In Jaws, one ordinary shark was enough. This film multiplies that by three and makes them superintelligent too. One shark causes a helicopter to crash, while another turns on an oven when the cook is hiding inside (one of the few good scenes). And while they don’t yet understand the concept of electricity, they’re real good at playing keepaway.

But even their murderous nature is a predictable trope. Why is it that any time an animal becomes intelligent, that flips a switch to either HELP HUMANS (if the animal is a dog or a dolphin) or KILL HUMANS (if the animal is anything else)? The sharks would have been so much more fascinating if they had had their own non-human-focused agenda – or if escape was more important to them than swimming into narrow little corridors looking for humans to eat.

Ah, the corridor scenes. Yes, it’s very suspenseful when you’re wading through waist-deep water in a long corridor, and you look back to see a fin rippling towards you.

Of course, then you wonder just how tiny this shark is, if it’s perfectly at home in water that’s three feet deep – not to mention filthy and full of floating or submerged debris. There was probably a reason that the Jaws attacks took place in the ocean, rather than in, say, a swimming pool.

Finally there’s the heroine. Other than the stereotype of the mad scientist, she has so little personality and affect that she seems in need of that magically fast-acting brain juice herself. And since she caused the whole mess, I expected her to be eaten by the sharks, but she survives until the end and then sacrifices herself in a completely needless gesture. If the last surviving shark will abandon its plans of escape and race back into danger the moment it smells her blood (so much for superintelligence), why does she need to cut herself and leap into the water? She could have held her cut hand over the edge and pushed a heavy piece of debris in.

But by then the audience was probably sick of her. The two surviving characters certainly were – a few minutes later, after the last shark audibly chomps her and dies, they lie back and chuckle in relief. I know how you feel, guys. The appearance of the closing credits was the best part of this film.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

What was your favorite Christmas present?

This was mine!

Gone with the Wind is my favorite novel and this is my third copy of it. Hopefully the one I'll end up keeping.

My first copy was the one I got when I was fifteen. I read it so many times that the book fell apart, and no amount of Scotch tape would keep it together.

My second copy stayed with me for several years, until I started tutoring a student in English Literature. She wanted to read more but wasn't sure where to start, so I gave her my copy of GWTW and we watched the film together.

After that I didn't have a copy of my favorite novel. I would eventually have bought myself one, but there are some books ahead of it on my to-obtain list - books that I haven't read twenty times over. So I was surprised and thrilled when a friend gave me a copy (she also gave me a Transformer, but GWTW edged that out).

What was your favorite gift?


Also, final grades for the semester arrived in time for Christmas!

Clinical Chemistry : A
Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases : A
Hematology : A
Transfusion Science : A-

So that was nice too. :)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Strong heroines

Most of the readers who reviewed Before the Storm said they liked the strong female characters. I'm happy about that, and it made me think about how strength is expressed in fictional female characters.

I’ve always liked books with tough heroines, even when they're in the middle of an all-male cast – Hyzenthlay in Watership Down and Petra Arkanian in Ender's Game. A female character doesn’t have to be the star of the show to be strong, and she can make mistakes, as Petra does after Ender depends too heavily on her at the end of the book.

In fact, it’s much better if she makes mistakes and gets hurt for it. Invulnerability means the readers are never going to care about her as much as if she really gets hurt. While I enjoyed Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel's Dart otherwise, I soon realized that the heroine, Phedre, could get raped, beaten and burned with a hot poker without this detracting in any way from her beauty or having a psychological effect on her.

Strong also doesn’t mean unfeminine. There are novels where the heroine is so focused on being intelligent or being in charge that she ends up frumpish and unattractive. It’s one thing for a woman not to be interested in fashion, or to not have the time and money to take care of her appearance if she’s got other priorities. But that’s not the same as the stereotype that a woman can be clever or pretty, but not both.

And I prefer heroines who are strong rather than feisty. Feisty always makes me think of someone who stamps her foot while claiming she can take care of herself. The really brave characters, like Melanie in Gone with the Wind, don’t need to tell anyone that they’re strong. They just do what it takes, whether that’s giving their wedding rings to a cause or struggling up after childbirth to defend their loved ones.

And what made Melanie so three-dimensional and realistic was that she followed her society’s norms otherwise – she was modest and shy, deferred to her husband and loved being a mother.

Especially in fantasies set in medieval lands, overly feminist women will stand out. It’s more believable to have them challenge one norm than several. If a woman supports her family, is the head of a business, is single but has several lovers, and beats up an assassin, it’s going to be very unrealistic.

What are the ways in which your heroines are strong?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Bad Fate

The idea of a character predestined to do something fascinates many people, but in fantasy there seems to be more Good Fate than Bad Fate.

Good Fate is when you’re the Chosen One, though the writer may make up other names for it. The world saw you coming before you were ever conceived, gave you special powers, a great destiny, a magical sword and maybe a birthmark to show everyone that you deserved all of it.

Bad Fate is when you’re picked or destined to do something which is likely to result in a horrible death. And even if you live, you’re not going to be very happy.

I can see why there’s more of the former, and that’s not entirely sarcastic. If you’re a soothsayer called in to make a pronouncement regarding the newborn heir to a kingdom, it may not be politic to declare that he will die in ignominy. And if there’s anything written from the point of view of such a fortune-teller, someone who sees a terrible fate but doesn’t dare make it public, I’d love to read it.

Characters often try to get around Bad Fate, especially if they have a glimpse of how their lives might have been otherwise. I enjoyed The Last Temptation of Christ for that reason. Ironically, they end up doing whatever it was they were trying to avoid, just as in the “Appointment in Samarra” fable.

A merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the market. The servant returned, trembling, and said, “I was jostled in the market, turned around, and saw Death. Death made a threatening gesture, and I fled in terror. May I take your horse? I can leave Baghdad and ride to Samarra, where Death will not find me.”

The master lent his horse to the servant, who rode away to Samarra. Later the merchant went to the market, and saw Death in the crowd. “Why did you threaten my servant?” he asked.

Death replied,”I did not threaten your servant. It was merely that I was surprised to see him here in Baghdad. You see, I have an appointment with him tonight, in Samarra.”

Sidney Sheldon’s A Stranger in the Mirror uses this technique very effectively, by beginning with a description of a strange scene on board a luxury liner. A wedding was supposed to take place on board but the bridegroom has just left on a motorboat. The projector in the theatre is warm even though no films were scheduled for that night. And on the tiered cake, someone has twisted off the head of the bride.

Then the story goes back to the beginning and events build up slowly and inevitably to the climax. The heroine struggles fiercely to make a happy and secure life for herself and almost gets it. But everything is shattered at the end, partly as a result of her own actions. The last line of the book is that there is nothing but the sea and the sky “and the stars above, where it had all been written.”

Fate plays a great role in mythology and the classics. I loved stories like Oedipus’s and Perseus’s for that reason; both were fated to kill their fathers, who sent them away after learning of that destiny. Naturally, patricide happened anyway.

It’s almost a given in fiction that the moment a character is given such a Bad Fate, that’s going to happen, since it’s usually an anticlimax for the character to either find an easy way around it or for there to be a mistake in the proclamation. That contributes to the horror, since many modern societies tend to support the right of the individual to choose his or her own lives (insofar as capability allows), rather than being controlled and doomed by some arbitrary pronounciation.

It’s possible to evoke some of the horror while not necessarily having a doomed main character, if the curse is something that can be overcome. In J. V. Jones’s A Cavern of Black Ice, there are powerful and malevolent creatures who were imprisoned thousands of years ago. But someone who can free them has been born. Her name is Ash March, her power is growing and it will consume her unless it’s released – which will, of course, doom the world.

Special abilities that people wish they never had are always fun.

Image from :

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Song of Kali

Of all Dan Simmons’s novels, Song of Kali is my favorite. Not just because it takes place in India and features a nightmarish goddess, but because of the twist near the end. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The story begins when Robert Luczak receives news that his editor wants him to find out about a prominent Indian poet, M. Das. Everyone believed Das was dead, but he has since resurfaced (literally, as it turns out). Luczak’s Indian-born wife and their seven-month-old daughter go with him to Calcutta to meet the poet.

It’s a fairly low-key start, but the story quickly spirals down into what happened to Das, which involves suicide and resurrection at the (multiple) hands of Kali. And Kali herself is unforgettable. I’d seen a picture of her before, but the book goes into vivid, disturbing detail to show something that is part woman and part demon and part overwhelming, unstoppable force that permeates everything down to the human heart.

She was power incarnate, violence personified, unfettered even by the bonds of time which held other gods and mere mortals in check.

In the sweltering, smoky night-heat of Calcutta, Luczak learns of this goddess – at first from word of mouth and later up close and personal. A theme of this book is that behind all the purposeless violence in the world is the purpose of Kali. And that violence will touch Luczak’s family in a way he never expected, and can’t prevent.

The descriptions of Calcutta aren’t beautiful, but they make for an realistically oppressive atmosphere. Life there tends to be nasty, brutish and short. The snippets of poetry in the book are well-written, but they tend to be on the dark side as well.

But the book ends on a hopeful note as well, the acknowledgment that no matter how pervasive the Song of Kali, there are other songs to be sung. All in all, this is a very thoughtful take on evil – or more relevantly, on senseless cruelty and meaningless violence. It’s much, much more than just a horror novel.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Final exams

I started to write something about finals, since I'm mired in them right now, and then had the feeling that there was a speculative fiction story somewhere called "Final Exam".

A few minutes of searching through the personal library found not the actual story, but a copy of The Issue at Hand, a collection of essays, critiques and reviews by James Blish under the pseudonym of William Atheling, Jr. The "Final Exam" in question is dissected in the essay titled "One Completely Lousy Story, With Feetnote". Atheling's take on it is both scholarly and scathing, and will scare anyone off using too many euphemisms for "said".

It's also an easier read than anticoagulant therapy, which is why I was thinking of that rather than the hematology exam on Monday.

But on a more pleasant note, there's a wonderful writeup on Before the Storm by Maldivian Book Reviewer, who enjoyed the book's heroine.

Beautiful, capable, strong and with a mind of her own, Alexis is a heroine I loved right from the very beginning.

The book got an A-. Cross your fingers that I'll do at least as well in the finals.

Image from :

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Five uses for mushrooms in fantasy

This is inspired by Polenth’s blog. I like how followers are spores, agents/editors are mushrooms and writers are toadstools.

1. As defenses

While I don’t read R. A Salvatore any longer, I enjoyed his novel Homeland because of the detailed descriptions of the underground city of Menzoberranzan. Since the city is mostly lightless, gardens are filled with fungi, which don’t photosynthesize.

Some of the fungi serve defensive purposes as well – scattered among the regular mushrooms are shriekers. Those respond to movement by letting out a loud scream and alerting everything in the vicinity.

Other fungi can be adapted for defense as well. A carpet of defensive puffballs could explode in infective spores if stepped on, or might release stinking fluids if stepped on.

2. As shelters

I once read that a fungus weighing close to the mass of an adult blue whale had been discovered in Michigan. Much of this is likely to be the underground part of the fungus, the mycelium, but it made me imagine giant fruiting bodies above the surface. Would it be possible for people to live in those?

Assuming that the fruiting body (the mushroom part of the fungus) didn’t die, such a home would be slowly self-renewing. It might also break down its inhabitants’ wastes, making them symbiotes rather than parasites. Some mushrooms are edible and could be an emergency food source for their inhabitants, but others are poisonous.

Those might be prisons.

3. As symbionts

Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse is set on a future Earth which has become overgrown with giant plants, but one of the more dangerous inhabitants is a sentient fungus called the morel. It attaches itself to the head of one of the characters and communicates mentally with him.

In that novel, the morel’s motives were entirely self-serving, but the connection could be symbiotic as well. A person might have a mold growing over part of his body, which would be disfiguring but would also continually supply him with natural antibiotics – a valuable asset for a healer in a medieval world ravaged by disease.

But if you want to go in the opposite direction, that’s possible as well. Some fungi can cause brain infections, so what about a fungus that takes over people’s brains completely and turns them into mobile fruiting bodies that disseminate its spores over great distances?

4. As hallucinogens

I read once that Alice in Wonderland was written after Lewis Carroll had experiemented with hallucinogenic mushrooms, and had realized just how they can distort time and sensory perception. In medieval worlds without access to modern chemical laboratories, people might resort to such fungi to experience hallucinations or undergo “mind expansion”.

5. As decoration

People wear flowers on their lapels or in their hair. Why not mushrooms? Some of those are very decorative and colorful.

And those people certainly wouldn’t be the first characters in speculative fiction to wear something edible on their lapels. The fifth Doctor Who wore a stalk of celery, and it was for a useful purpose, since the celery would turn purple if exposed to certain gases in the atmosphere.

Image from here :

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Well, now I've heard it all

People justify e-book piracy in all kinds of ways, but this one is the best ever.

What if someone in an impoverished nation illegally downloads a book? What if in the process of reading that book that individual is profoundly changed? What if that profound impact moves that person in such a manner that they in turn spread that impact to others?

It's bad enough when someone steals from you. But it's adding insult to injury when they try to make this seem like a good thing. Piracy is stealing, not a Rosa Parks-esque act of rebellion against The Man that will eventually make the world a better place, for you and for me and the entire human race.

As for the what-if story, I was hoping the profound change wrought in the hypothetical e-book pirate would be a realization that they had deliberately defrauded the author who wrote the book and the publisher who produced it. Then they could decide never to do it again, and would encourage others to buy their e-books legally.

That would be a happy ending for everyone.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Happily Ever After Reviews on "Before the Storm"

What a wonderful way to start the day! Check out this recommended read: adult romance about people who are flawed, scarred, burdened, and terribly terribly remarkable. I loved them and I loved this book. I see that it is a trilogy and I am fascinated to see where it will go from here.

And in other news...

Yesterday I took the Canadian citizenship test. It was twenty multiple choice questions, with the passing mark being fifteen. The questions ranged from amazingly simple ("What was the significance of the discovery of insulin?") to the kind you'd better have studied for ("Which province provides the most hydroelectricity?").

Citizenship and Immigration Canada will inform me in three to five months if I've passed, and when that happens I'll be invited to take the oath. After that I can get a Canadian passport, which will be a very good thing since my Sri Lankan passport expired in 2007 and I never bothered to renew it.

And then the world's mine oyster, which I with sword will open. :)