Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Not For The Squeamish

Last month I heard David Quammen speak at the Seattle Town Hall, and I nearly resolved to never eat, drink, or breathe again.  Quammen is an acclaimed science writer who does his research first-hand, in this case on zoonotic diseases that cross from other species to humans.  His book, SPILLOVER: ANIMAL INFECTIONS AND THE NEXT HUMAN PANDEMIC, is not for the squeamish.

It is, however, fascinating.  Quammen has tramped through the jungle looking for gorillas infected with Ebola; bagged bats in search of the host reservoir for SARS; traced the path of Hendra in Australia as the disease made its way through horses, bats, and the occasional person; examined mice's ears for the ticks that cause Lyme disease.  He does all this alongside working parasitologists, epidemiologists, and other scientists concerned about cross-over diseases.

This concern forms the theme of Quammen's book.  As humans encroach more and more on the wilds where the host animals for these diseases live, there is greater and greater chance for the parasites (viruses, protists, bacteria, worms, and fungi) to move into us.  Sometimes the original host animals are habituated to their parasites, and we are not.  Sometimes there is more than one host involved.  Sometimes we still haven't found the reservoir host (Ebola, for instance).  Some time this could lead to the next world-wide pandemic.  We've mostly dodged the bullet so far; Quammen argues that we cannot do so indefinitely.

Perhaps you have to be an alarmist or a science groupie to love this book.  I am the latter, and I did.  Quammen writes with grace, force, and clarity.  Highly recommended -- just not right before dinner.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Really Cranky at the Movies

The NEW YORKER rarely likes movies, and it didn't like the new remake of WUTHERING HEIGHTS.  Even rarer is that I, usually easier to satisfy than Anthony Lane or David Denby, downright hated this film.  Really.  A lot.

Emily Bronte's classic novel is chatty.  Nellie Dean, the moral center of the book, talks constantly, trying to get everyone else to behave.  They don't, of course, but in her scolding and their replies lie the means of understanding the depths of Bronte's characters.  Here, Nellie Dean has been reduced to a silent and much younger serving girl who has perhaps a half dozen, one-sentence speeches.  In fact, nobody has much dialogue.  England seems to consist of semi-mutes.  As a result, characters that in the novel are multi-layered, here become merely one-dimensional: Heathcliff is sullen, Hindley is bigoted, Cathy is shallow, Edgar is a wimp, Isabella is a twit.  Period.

In films without words, the images are important.  Here they are (1) shot in such low light that sometimes it's difficult to see who is even present, (2) shot in such close-up that a character is reduced to an arm or one side of a face, and rooms to a flagstone floor or the corner of a rough table -- in fact, I never did get any coherent view of any room at all in the farmhouse, (3) shot with such jerky motions of a hand-held camera that it looked THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, (4) shot through incessant rain, fog, or mist that blurred everything.  There can be more than one correct answer.

 Even when the weather cleared, there are only so many long, slow pans of the moors than a film can stand.  By the time the millionth one appeared, I was hoping for grass fires.  Or anything with some life.

Also, one hanging of a small dog may be justified--it's in the book, and we are getting a clear view of Heathcliff's rage.  The second hanging of a small dog is not in the book and represents gratuitous nastiness.

Finally, the movie--and this is NEVER announced--consists of only the first half of the novel.  It stops with Heathcliff's marriage to Isabella.  This means that nothing is resolved, none of the relationships are finished, we never get to see the more-or-less happy ending that Bronte wrote.  The film just stops.  When it ended with such unfinished abruptness, a person behind me said unbelievingly, "It's over?"

Her companion said, "Thank God!"

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Nail-Biting at the Movies

You'd think it would be impossible to make a thriller where everyone knows the end well in advance and still have the audience sitting on the edge of their seats.  ARGO, amazingly, accomplishes this.

The story is true: In 1979, when 50 people had been taken hostage after the storming of the American embassy in Tehran, six more embassy staffers escaped out the back door and hid in the house of the Canadian ambassador.  It fell to the CIA to get them out of Iran.  Terry Mendez, an "exfiltrator," came up with the insane idea to pose as a Canadian film company making an SF movie in Tehran, and smuggle out the six as members of the film crew.  This means they needed a plausible movie company in Hollywood, a script, buzz in the press, posters, storyboards -- everything to convince the Iranians this was a legitimate enterprise.  So with the help of Hollywood, they created them.  

All this was declassified in 1997.  At the time, after the plan actually worked, the Canadians got the credit.  Mendez has since said that the extraction went smoothly, which means that Ben Affleck, as director, took liberties with the escape sequence in the airport.  It doesn't matter.  The basic facts are there, and I was so tense with the escape that I could barely sit still.  As the plane finally leaves Iranian airspace, the audience in the theater broke into applause.

The actors are all good: Affleck as an impossibly sexy Mendez, Alan Arkin as a cynical producer, John Goodman as the make-up man who has done work for the CIA before.  I had a few quibbles with the six hostages, who are so terrified they don't play along with the ruse very well and so look suspicious already.  But overall, this is the sort of taut, exciting, emotional movie that LOOPER should have been, with innocents in mortal danger and heroes out to rescue them.  Maybe the next big SF movie should be a project for Ben Affleck.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Cranky at the Movies

Everybody likes LOOPER.  Except me.

io9, which reviews all things SF-nal, called it "smart."  I'm having trouble wrapping my mind around this.  My problem is that the plot doesn't make sense, which would seem to be a basic requirement of smartness.  To be specific:  [Alert: Many spoilers ahead!]

In 2044, time travel has been invented.  However, the only people who have a time machine are a very influential criminal organization headed by a mysterious man called the Rainmaker.  The only people.  No scientists, governments, etc.  Just thugs.

Technology has advanced enough to create time travel, but not enough to dispose of bodies, so the criminal organization sends its enemies, bound and hooded and alive, back to our time to be shot by confederates called Loopers. They don't send the bodies back dead, even though the problem is body disposal.  The Loopers have guns with ONE bullet, thereby enabling the odd sent-back thug to escape into our time.

The time machine looks like a rusty iron lung from the 1950's.  In fact, nothing in the future looks very futuristic except Shanghai, which already looks futuristic.

Bruce Willis, a retired Looper, is transformed from a stupid Bad Guy by the power of love.  Or so we're told.  However, he still can, and does, shoot children (one of whom will grow up to be the Rainmaker) in order to change the future so he can get his wife back.  Of course, if he succeeds in changing the future, what's to say that she will still be present in a drastically changed 2044?  Nobody considers this.

The child (played by a truly wonderful kid actor) has telekinesis, which he demonstrates when he kills a different assassin.  But when confronted with the exact same situation later in the movie, he doesn't use TK even though he could.  Why not?  Because if he did, the movie would be over.

Again, nobody else seems to mind any of this.  As long as enough bodies drop, enough things blow up, and Bruce glares enough, everybody thinks that's adequate to make an SF movie.   And if Hollywood wants to make a movie about time travel, why not Greg Benford's TIMESCAPE or Michael Swanwick's BONES OF THE EARTH or Connie Willis's "Firewatch"?  Those all make 
self-consistent sense.
So -- is it just me?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Casual Vacancy

J.K. Rowling's awaited first novel for adults, THE CASUAL VACANCY, is a surprise.  Several surprises, not all good.  But not all bad, either.
The first surprise is how grim the book is.  Pagford is a picturesque English country village, something Jane Austen might have used as a setting.  Beside it, however, is an extension of the city of Yarvil, a depressed area called "the Fields" that mostly consists of slums, out-of-work inhabitants, and a methadone clinic.  The Pagford Parish Council is divided on whether or not they should redraw boundaries to hand the Fields back to Yarvil and close the clinic (which is renting a building owned by Pagford), or instead try to help--with money and scholarships-- the disadvantaged inhabitants of the Fields.  In Chapter 1, a key member of the council dies, and the vacancy leads to an election that ends up exposing everyone's deepest secrets and personal bad behavior.

And it IS bad.  I didn't expect Harry Potter-type buoyancy and heroism, but nearly every character in THE CASUAL VACANCY is unpleasant, taking most of their pleasure from others' weaknesses, failures, frustrations, and pain.  Nearly every one!  These are not merely flawed characters; they are petty and actively vindictive.  And some are worse than that, including a man who beats his wife and kids, a crack addict who neglects her children, cyberbullies, and three--not one but three--teenagers who cruelly and publicly humiliate their parents. And one character, Krystal, is so wrenching that the only possible response to her is a painful pity. 

 By the end of the book, some of these characters have repented and reformed, but this is unfortunately the book's greatest weakness: I didn't believe some of these character changes.  They did not seem to me adequately prepared for.

The second surprise, however, was that despite all of the above, I could not put the book down.  The writing is good.  More, the story kept me enthralled to see what would happen next and how the various plot lines would turn out.  I neglected a lot of other things I was supposed to be doing in order to finish this novel. 

Rowling has moved a long way from what Jane Austen would have done with an English village.  Masterly Jane knew that every setting has at least a few moments of joy, at least a few relationships that are tender, at least some people who strive for higher standards of behavior.  Rowling has said that some of her book came from her own life and the lives she observed before she became famous.  If so, her upbringing must have been a doozie.

Still--I read, I read compulsively, and I believed her characters.  I just wish they hadn't been the only inhabitants we meet in Pagford.