Saturday, December 8, 2007

My New XBox 360 Icon

I recently received the XBox Live package which comes with a camera for taking live images for games. I haven't found a real use for it yet, but you can take a picture for your player icon and that introduced some real possibilities.

Dull, boring people would just take a picture of themselves and let it stand at that. Nerds on the other hand will have their head exploding with possibilities. A creepily lit image of Cthulhu taken from my statue? A pattern that produces shimmering rainbows with a television's comb? A renaissance painting of a religious icon? A picture of a Jack Kirby drawing of Galactus?

Instead I decided on this:

For those who don't recognize this it is a screen shot of Adventure for the Atari 2600. It's most famous for being the first game to include an easter egg. That particular image is a rather dramatic one of the game since the player (the yellow square in the middle) is about to be eaten by a dragon (the red duck).

Actually getting the image into XBox Live was annoying. I had to color correct the screenshot so that the colors would be particularly vibrant, print it out at a high DPI, and then hold the camera and paper steady with decent lighting to get the picture. The square I have above is roughly the chunk of the screenshot that became the icon.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Greatest QA Work Ever!

I did my share of quality assurance for software products in the past (mainly dull things like specialized CAD packages or e-mail handlers) so I know how sometimes things can slip through but this one takes the cake.

EVE Online, the massively multiplayer online game where they don't even bother trying to pretend it's not work, released a new patch that is something really special. When it installs it deletes c:\boot.ini which has a bad tendency to make Windows XP very unhappy the next time the computer is restarted. Forced system restorations are running rampant. Apparently the game uses its own file called boot.ini (small tip for people writing software: don't name your files the same as OS system files) and someone left out the path in the installer.

This isn't the first time I've heard of a poorly QA'ed installation process overwriting things that it shouldn't but it takes some real effort to break a Windows installation and not notice (insert joke about all Windows installations being broken to begin with here).

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Review - The Incredible Shrinking Man

The Incredible Shrinking Man
1958 Hugo Winner for Outstanding Movie

The first time the fans at Worldcon decided to honor a film they may have chosen the wrong year to do it. The science fiction films of 1957 have a few greats in them but the ones in 1956 were spectacular (which include Forbidden Planet, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a decent version of 1984, for the special effects fans Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, the US release of The Quatermass Xperiment, and Godzilla). Perhaps it was the quality of the films in 1956 that drove them to add films to the Hugos. The crop of 1957 is much more thin (and I should say that when I was double checking the science fiction films released that year I was shocked that I had seen the majority of them), but there was the second Quartermass film and 20 Million Miles to Earth. They chose a real classic for that first film Hugo.

Unlike most movies of the 1950's it is not radiation that causes our title figure to begin shrinking; it's a combination of radiation and insecticides. After being exposed Scott Carey gradually begins to shrink and as he does his relationship with his wife becomes strained, he becomes a media phenomena, and eventually the contents of his house become deadly hazards.

In a sense it's one of the standard movie science fiction plots of the fifties and sixties. Man exposed to science starts changing while everyone around him reacts in horror. This time it really worked for two reasons. First, while I wouldn't call the performances brilliant they were decent. Grant Williams as Scott really has to carry the movie, especially the second half where all of the other actors are effectively gone. Second, Jack Arnold's direction is very impressive. Arnold used a lot of exotic point-of-view shots to get into Scott's head, some distinctive camera angles to emphasize the scale, and some wonderfully integrated special effects shots.

There are four ways that they showed the shrunken Scott Carey through special effects. The first, and simplest, is just oversized props and sets. This was used quite a bit when Scott is alone on screen and some of it looks really nice but it feels a bit barren just because they didn't have as many oversized props as they could have. The second is the forced perspective shot. This was only used toward the beginning where slight changes were necessary but the pacing of those slow changes made it a very effective tool. Then there was the rear projection which varied from looking very smooth to being garishly wrong. Finally there were the matted shots, a technique that was far from perfected in 1957 and these look particularly bad. Still I found that that the effects worked well overall with the practical effects for the foreground and the projection in the background.

The Incredible Shrinking Man is at its heart an adventure film though the bulk of the adventure takes place in just two rooms of a house. I thought the movie lost something when Scott becomes separated and trapped in the basement for the last half of the film since he effectively became the only person in the movie from then on. Still this adventure portion is very good.

For a concept that has been worked over quite a bit in popular culture The Incredible Shrinking Man featured quite a bit that was very distinctive. Sure there's the encounters with the house cat and spider have been copied over and over again but they are done well. I know for some people watching black and white movies with old special effects isn't something they can do but I found The Incredible Shrinking Man well worth watching.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Review - Ringworld

by Larry Niven
1971 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1970 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

It's hard to believe that at one time universal scale engineering wasn't a big thing in science fiction. There was an occasional planet that wasn't really a planet or a really big colony ship but changing an entire star system into one massive engineering project wasn't done. And then came Larry Niven so he's the one to blame.

Ringworld isn't really the start of the "big, dumb object" subgenre of science fiction where some mysterious and gigantic alien artifact is found and humans go to poke at it for a while. It is the book that made the idea wildly popular so we have Niven to blame for that. Niven is superb with these big ideas but very often other aspects of his works fall flat. Ringworld is one of the times when he was at the top of his form.

Somewhere in the depths of space there's a million mile wide ring around a star which thanks to some complicated engineering has a habitable surface. The result is an area that has roughly 5.655x10^14 square miles of living space. An alien from a species of cowards wants to know more about it but needs to recruit a team of people who don't curl into the fetal position when encountering something new to do it. He finds Louis Wu, a two hundred year old explorer who's undergoing a mid-life crisis; Teela Brown, a human who may have been bred for luck; and Speaker-To-Animals, one of the first diplomats from a species of conquerors. They travel to the Ringworld, are astounded by it, have some adventures, and all live happily ever after (until the unfortunate sequels).

The test of how much you would enjoy Ringworld is if the idea of building a ring around a star catches your imagination. Niven spends a lot of time justifying the engineering as best he can and it still requires a lot of hand waving and he still missed one major issue. There's long passages describing how strong the material making the floor would have to be, how they would manage the forces on the water, how to deal with impacts from objects wandering into the solar system, and other tiny technical details that will either set your mind ablaze or bore you to tears.

The Ringworld isn't the only big idea in the book. Niven pitches just about everything and the kitchen sink in there from migrating planets to the genetic manipulation of entire species to Conan the Barbarian. It doesn't all work perfectly, though. The Ringworld itself is infamously an unstable structure. Given that it's a solid ring around the star it has to be perfectly balanced and the slightest nudge even from a variation in solar wind could set up a resonance that would quickly lead to large sections of the ring intersecting the star. Also I have quite a bit of trouble accepting the complete collapse of the Ringworld civilization.

Fortunately there's more for the characters to do than just look on at the ring in amazement. While I wouldn't call them the deepest set of characters you'll find but they are not really paper cut outs either and are sufficient to hang the story on. Niven's aliens in particular have some distinct outlooks which while they may be a little too human to pass as truly alien they are sufficiently removed from normal human reactions to make them interesting. In addition the characters actually do things rather than simply react (a trap a lot of authors fall into when writing about vast alien artifacts); while their explorations are driven by a convenient plot event their interactions are not tied to simply stumbling over the next plot element, saying "Wow, would you look at that," and then going away.

On the downside of things most of the plot does go that way. Niven doesn't put all of his story telling eggs in that Ringworld basket which helps the book out considerably but the characters do spend an awful lot of time just stumbling across the next fantastic thing. They do respond well once they've encountered the next plot device, but there's a lot of sections of people just talking out how the astounding thing they've encountered works.

I don't particularly like where a lot of the super-engineering subgenre of science fiction went. A lot of authors after Niven thought it was enough to just have their giant object and a token conflict. Ringworld is quite a bit richer than those successors since the characters are interesting and active but your enjoyment is still going to depend on how much you like that idea of building a ring around a star. If you say to yourself "Cool, I wonder how that would be done," then Ringworld is something you would enjoy.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

True Ultimate Horror

Mike Nelson's Rifftrax, home of Mystery Science Theater 3000 alumni and humorous commentary tracks, has announced their next one and its a terror beyond all imagining:

Yes, the terror of nerds everywhere: The Star Wars Holiday Special.

I have to confess that I haven't seen it before. I've seen clips and I've had the opportunity but the fact that it posses almost Necronomicon like abilities to drive nerds insane from just viewing it has kept me away. Should I survive I'll let you know.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Review - The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursala K. Le Guin
1970 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1969 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

I'm not an Ursala K. Le Guin fan. Other works of hers that I've read have been preachy at best, so I fully expected going into The Left Hand of Darkness that I'd hate it. Once more I was pleasantly surprised. It speaks to the quality of the book that it overcame my prejudices and I found it to be pretty good.

Genly Ai is a diplomat sent from an interstellar society that has faster than light communication but not travel. They bind worlds together through an exchange of culture and ideas despite the rarity of travel between them. Genly is attempting to get the lost human colony of Gethen to join their society but the feudal country of Karhide is hesitant to open trade with such a broad community. After his once ally Estraven is banished from Karhide Genly abandons his attempts to get the kingdom to join and travels to the hostile neighboring country of Orgoreyn, a Marxist dictatorship, to try to convince them to open trade. After falling out of favor there Genly is imprisoned and escapes with Estraven's help. Together they try to escape from Orgoreyn by crossing the polar ice cap.

Like the previous Hugo winner time has not been kind to The Left Hand of Darkness. It's central premise, the one that reportedly shocked and impressed readers when it came out was that the humans on Gethen change gender regularly when they're fertile. In our post-sexual revolution culture the book has lost pretty much all of its impact. "Oh look, they change gender from time to time. Not that there's anything wrong with that..." (Are they hermaphrodites if they only have one gender at a time?) The major use of this is an attack on traditional gender roles but in the past forty years they have been completely transformed. I'm not shocked by the idea of someone half-female being in a position of power, or even put off by the concept a person who can both sire a child and give birth to one.

Unlike Stand on Zanzibar, though, The Left Hand of Darkness manages to convey an interesting story. The politics of Gethen are fairly complex and feel real. There's many factions who each want to use Genly for their own ends and the conflicts between them drive the book. The feudal classes of Karhide are socially repressive but in their own way are more open than society of Orgoreyn. Orgoreyn on the other hand claims to have removed classes but still has them lurking underneath. Genly's journey there reminds me a lot of the people in the sixties and seventies who traveled to the Soviet Union to see the bright face that they put on over the ugly totalitarianism. The parallels between Orgoreyn and the USSR are fairly blatant but I didn't find them so blunt that it became annoying. The fact that Karhide is not really a direct stand-in for any western nation probably helped the book avoid that trap.

Another very effective aspect of the book is the interweaving of Gethen legends into the story. These interludes help fill in some of the holes in Gethen society that just wouldn't naturally fit into a story about a diplomatic envoy.

I also appreciated that idea that even when things can't go faster than light there is still a great deal of value in a cultural exchange. Rather than holding the position that someone who is essentially at a level of technology of the early twentieth century doesn't hold value to a space faring race Le Guin notes that there's a lot to be gained just by talking to each other.

The themes of The Left Hand of Darkness may not carry the weight that they once did but because the book wasn't dependent upon the impact that those themes have on the readers it is still worth reading. The richly drawn characters drive the book forward and the prose is superb. It is a great example of early political science fiction where the conspiracies and ideas are more important than the action.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Reviews - "Or All the Seas with Oysters", "The Big Front Yard", and "The Hell-Bound Train"

Frank Kelly Freas
1955, 1956, 1958, and 1959 Hugo Winner for Best Illustrator

In case you're wondering what happened to 1957, that year awards were only given to magazines.

I should mention that the covers that I've been using have mostly been from where they have a very nice collection of magazine covers. I recommend taking a look, especially at Freas's early work. While I've been trying to pick out a favorite image from the period that he won and balance it with the other selections his work in 1954 (for which he won the 1955 Hugo) is simply impressive. I chose the one on the right because it illustrates the Hugo winning They'd Rather Be Right, but I enjoyed the July 1954 cover of Planet UK. It is a nice illustration and rather comically refers to just the title of Bradbury's "The Sound of Thunder" which has nothing to do with the illustration that was used (something that many science fiction writers over the years would complain about).

Also of note, the 1956 image is an illustration for Double Star while the last one features Clifford Simak's "The Big Front Yard". The remaining image was chosen because much like the editors of the science fiction magazines of the 1950's I know that to get some readers you have to use some cheesecake.

"Or All the Seas with Oysters"
by Avram Davidson
1958 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

"Or All the Seas with Oysters" is a first for the Hugo awards. This is the first fiction that is not science fiction to win. It's possible that there is a science fiction explanation for the events in the story but I'd categorize the work as one of fantasy. Along with the next year's "The Hell-Bound Train" this story made it clear that the Hugo would not be limited to the strict form of science fiction. While some people looking at the recent Hugo winners may not be happy with that I think it was a good decision on the part of that year's voters.

This story is also a good decision on the part of that year's voters. It isn't a very deep story and its big idea has been done quite a few times since it was written but this version is in turns charming and sinister and I enjoyed it.

There isn't a lot of narrative to "Or All the Seas with Oysters". Two bicycle repairmen notice that safety pins always vanish and reappear while you end up with a closet full of unused clothes hangers. One of them begins to ascribe a possible life cycle to these bits of found metal and sees something sinister behind it.

The story is very light-hearted but given the direction things take I could have easily seen this tale being done by H.P. Lovecraft (it's just a matter of time until there are enough clothes hangers to supplant humanity; they are smaller but they breed faster and how many times do you let one of them get close to you without thinking about it). It has that same kind of creeping dread as it shifts tone. It elevates what could have been a simple comedic piece to something more and I have to recommend it.

"The Hell-Bound Train"
by Robert Bloch
1959 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

It's been said that the most common fantasy story is the deal with the devil. It's a common trope for writers who don't typically do any kind of fantasy to fall back to. Bloch in "The Hell-Bound Train" was not acting as one of those people. In 1959 he was a science fiction and fantasy writer with a taste for horror. He was co-presenter at Worldcon that year. And then he must have made his own deal with the devil because less than one year later came the film Psycho and he was noticed by the mainstream public.

I'd like to say that "The Hell-Bound Train" is not a typical deal with the devil story. The devil in it is wittier and more clever than most. He isn't relying on trickery or clever wording to bring him the soul, just human nature. He makes references to other stories that feature this same plot and lets the reader know that the methods of cheating him used then wouldn't work this time. Unfortunately I feel that the rest of the story lacks the same strength as the characterization of Old Scratch.

Admittedly fifty years on this kind of thing has been done quite a bit more but Bloch's story still has a charm there. The problem for me is the very ending where it falls back into the standard pattern of these stories. After doing so well with the set up the ending is a flat disappointment for me. Given the overdone nature of the story and that disappointing ending I'd have to just forget about this one.

"The Big Front Yard"
by Clifford D. Simak
1959 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

"The Big Front Yard" reminds me a lot of Simak's Waystation. It's a simple, pastoral story wonderfully told. The concepts aren't wildly mind blowing, the biggest action in the book is a lost dog, and I can't say that I completely agree with the climax which is dependent upon aliens who can bend space wanting to open technological trade with earth but Simak brings in a bucket of charm to make it all work.

In "The Big Front Yard" Hiram is a tinkerer and antique salesman who finds that his house has been turned into a gateway to another planet (rather like Waystation there). As he explorers this new world and finds similar houses that act as gates his dog wanders off but everything is made better as it wanders back with aliens who want to trade with Hiram.

Obviously that's simplified but not by much. Simak's story is more about the life of a Yankee trader, a concept that's pretty much gone now, than it is about the strange alien planet. It's populated by easy-going characters; even the money-grubbing businessman who tries to take advantage of Hiram is laid back.

I think the worst thing I can say about "The Big Front Yard" is that it is redundant. After reading Waystation I felt like I've already read a better version of this same story. Still I can't complain that much about "The Big Front Yard", it was a pleasant experience.