Monday, December 21, 2009


The first movie I saw that was written and directed by James Cameron was Aliens, which I saw on tape back in 1987. I was blown away, and eagerly devoured everything he did before and since. Terminator, The Abyss, True Lies, he had a knack for creating sci-fi that was unlike everything else out there. Unlike his contemporaries, in a Cameron film, the science worked. Robots were competent, spaceships went where they were supposed to, and when a site was to be nuked, it got nuked.

So like many a Cameron fan, I was looking forward to his first major film in over ten years, Avatar. At 9:00 AM on a Sunday, the IMAX theater was nearly full. After watching the film unfold, I can see why.

Many have said that Terminator 2 was primarily a remake of The Terminator with a bigger budget. The same could be said of Avatar; this is Aliens writ large. Cameron knows this: I do not think it is a coincidence that he cast Sigourney Weaver in a lead role. The trip to Pandora is via cryogenic freezing, Ripley's construction loader gets a military upgrade, and many of the themes are the same with the primary one being the evils corporations do in the pursuit of a quarterly earning report. And like all Cameron films, the themes are held up front and center. The planet is named Pandora; Cameron is not exactly subtle.

Unlike Aliens, however, which is framed as a horror story, Avatar is framed as a hero's journey. Here our hero is played by Sam Worthington. He's one of those actors who has been quietly putting out great supporting and lead performances for years, but has just now burst into the American action film scene. With knockout roles in Terminator: Salvation and Avatar this year, he looks set to assume the action hero mantle that has been drifting from one thirtysomething actor to another this decade. Seeing an actor in one role tells you whether he is interesting to watch--seeing him twice you find out if he can act. Worthington was a completely different person in Avatar and Terminator: Salvation.

But back to Avatar: the visuals are spectacular. Not quite photorealistic for the animals of Pandora, but close enough that I quickly and completely lost myself in the effects. And the flowers and native people themselves are flawless, a tribute to the profession. Like all modern films, more than one effects team created the world, which aids considerably.

The plot is taut and suspenseful, moving always at a fluid pace. Cameron is nothing if not precise, he tends to avoid deus ex machina resolution, carefully laying the groundwork for the finale well in advance. This also makes his films fun--looking for clues to what the future holds. I loved this film from start to finish, its rich visuals and its stalwart protagonists.

Avatar: 5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Stargate Universe

Stargate: SG-1 was the spiritual successor to Star Trek. Filled with unbridled hope for the future of humanity, it worked its way through an impressive 11 seasons. The spin-off Stargate: Atlantis was more of the same.

SG-1 ended two years ago and Atlantis finished up this year, but MGM wasn't going to let the franchise die. The next series debuted this fall: Stargate: Universe.

The first season ended a few weeks back, and it was quite a run. They decided to mix more Farscape DNA than Star Trek into this go around though, and the result was something I enjoyed thoroughly. This is a much darker version, where the characters are as concerned with finding their next meal as upholding deep humanistic principles.

Their ship "Destiny" is decidedly low-tech compared to the earlier vessels in the Stargate Universe, capturing a Firefly vibe where everything seems about to fall apart at any moment. The main conflicts rise not from dangerous alien empires, but their own human failings, and so far that has made the episodes more compelling than the last few seasons of Atlantis or SG-1.

Dark SF is nothing new, certainly The X-Files and Forever Knight qualify. But I think it took the long term success of Battlestar Galactica to get a show like SGU greenlit. Here's hoping that they can match the depth that BSG managed to attain.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The proof is in the pudding.

I am nearing the end of the publication process for a journal article, and yesterday I received what are called page proofs.

I hate page proofs.

Those who know me know I'm not typically a hateful person...but page proofs, oh they get my blood boiling. Let me start at the beginning.

The birth of a paper (at least for me) goes something like this. One day, an idea will strike, an idea of unbridled loveliness and all around awesomeness. Of course, then begins the long process of taking the idea and putting on paper, where in the cold light of reality, the awesomeness factor was perhaps overrated.

After maybe a few months to a few years of kneading the idea into a form suitable for publication, the article is submitted to a journal. A few months later, an editor at the journal will find one or more people to referee the article--read it to see if it seems roughly correct, if it is novel, and put their own awesomeness rating on it. Sadly, the referee's awesomeness rating can go negative, and it usually takes anywhere from 3 months to a year in mathematics journals to get the referee's report.

If it survives the process, the editor usually returns it with some notes: Fix this, move this figure over here, take that figure out completely, what does iid mean? A month or two later you resubmit the article to the journal, they send it back to the referee, and the merry cycle continues until it is finally accepted.

So the editor sends it over to the publisher, and then at a surprise date returns the paper to the author with the dreaded page proofs. Keep in mind that this could be anywhere from a few weeks to a year after the paper was accepted for publication, depending on the backlog.

One day, out of the blue, a message will arrive in your inbox: "These are your page proofs. You have 24 hours to check them over, and return any corrections to us."

Okay, the generous ones give 72 hours.

Let me reiterate. A paper that was literally years in the writing, you now have at best a few days to check to see if the publisher messed something up accidentally. But that's not all!

See, editors like to edit, and they do. So not only have they returned your paper to you for checking, they have also made what appear to be random changes throughout the paper in order to make it "read better". Some of these changes will be marked. Others will not.

You have the next few days to try to unearth these changes, and correct it before it is too late forever. Sometimes I have succeeded, other times I have failed.

The worse change I missed: one editor replaced every use of the Number sign (#) with the musical symbol for sharp. I have to believe I'm not the first person this has happened to, since the Wikipedia entry for the musical sharp opens with: "Not to be confused with the Number sign...", but I failed to catch it, and now it's a part of the mathematical literature.

This latest page proof? They edited one of my definitions. An edit that completely changed the meaning of the definition. Fortunately, this wasn't just any old definition.

It is what I did my thesis on.

So I caught it. I caught that, I caught a few others, but of course those aren't what worry me. Those aren't what give me the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. The ones I didn't catch, the edits that got away, that's what keeps me up nights.

I hate page proofs.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The downfall of Eastwick

Fantasy is not a license for your characters to transgress all bounds of moral decency.

This is a lesson that the writers of Eastwick, unfortunately, failed to learn. Now some would say that since Eastwick has been canceled already, that this is pointless, no new episodes are being made, so why belabor a mistake? But I just can't let this go, this was so very wrong. So here goes.

Rape is never funny. Period. You cannot have one of your main characters rape someone and retain any warmth towards that character. Now, Eastwick is a fantasy where at least three characters possess magic powers. One of the three characters in Eastwick has the power to make men do anything she wishes. And on last week's episode, she forced a man to have sex with her.

Sadly, that is rape. What makes it worse is that the tone of the scenes were all comedic. She did it after knocking back a few in order to get back at another guy who told her she was "not fun", a guy that they are clearly setting up for romance later on. But back to the sex. After finishing, the man's spouse walks in on them. And here's the surprise, the spouse was also a man. Yes, he was gay! So that makes it hilarious that our heroine just raped him.

Coincidentally, this was not the only fantasy series this week where sex under magical compulsion was contemplated. In the "Sword of Truth" series of books, a character also has the power of compulsion. And this week, in the T.V. series based on the books, "Legend of the Seeker", the same question arose--should she have sex with someone under magical control? LotS realized the magnitude of the question, and created a back story to make the choice far more difficult. In the end, however, she took the moral choice to not take advantage. Why? Because LotS realizes the important fact that if you are writing fantasy, you need to be more aware of the consequences of your actions, not less.