Saturday, December 29, 2007

Fun With Chemistry

So some crazy nuts with too much time on their hands in the chemistry department at the University of Kentucky have found a way to blend their two loves: comic books and, you guessed it, chemistry. They set out through decades of old comic books, searching for references to every element in the periodic table and put them up on their crazy website. According to the very excited patron at the library who told me about this yesterday, one of the hardest ones for them was the element Yttrium, but some writers for the 2001 comic book Star Trek: Dividid We Fall heard of their plight and included it in the series.

The site's pretty fun. You can search, of course, by your favorite element (calcium, anyone?). But you can also search by comic book, character, or pretty much any search term your brain can come up with. They also have links to some real science info on the web, so it's not all about being silly. Not surprisingly Metamorpho, a superhero who can alter the chemical makeup of his own body, makes a number of appearances, as do Superman, Ironman, and the Metal Men. But they really dug through some obscure stuff to fill out the periodic table. They are by no means done, but it's a fun if somewhat odd way to experience science.


Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Review: A War of Gifts by Orson Scott Card

Set in the war-torn future of Card’s acclaimed Ender’s Game series, the focus for this short novella A War of Gifts moves from the series hero to Zeck, son of an abusive fundamentalist preacher. Zeck’s phenomenal abilities for memorization and judging a situation make him an ideal candidate for the International Fleet’s Battle School, an academy that trains boys to be brilliant military leaders in an ongoing interstellar war. Despite his mental aptitudes, Zeck proves an unwilling pupil when he refuses to participate in battle simulations, claiming them to be against the pacifism of his religion. This clash of personal religion vs. duty to society comes up early on, when Zeck is first "recruited".

Children have no religion," said the stranger. "That's why we take them so young---before they have been fully indoctrinated in any ideology."
"So you can indoctrinate them in yours," said Father.
"Exactly," said the man.
p 22


Zeck's beliefs make him a pariah within the school, pushing him to cry foul when he sees two Dutch students quietly celebrate Christmas---or Sinterklaas Day---by exchanging satirical poems. This kicks off a cultural revolt, pitting students of different religions against each other and against the school in the name of religious freedom. Ender himself plays a small but pivotal role in the end of the story by confronting Zeck and forcing him to deal with the dark issues of his past.
I'll be honest, I wasn't sure what to think when I got this in the mail to review. The whole concept of a Sci-fi Christmas Story left me a little worried. Also, I've never read Card. For whatever reason he's one of those many authors I've just never picked up. But he handles it all well; what could easily have turned into an all-too-sweet mess developed into a thoughtful parable about religious freedom, cultural differences and knowing yourself.

Reader reviews on Amazon and other places claim Card put out this little novella---a slim, 128 page volume---to meet publisher deadlines. But I think what they are reacting to is not so much the thinness of the book but Card's approach; Sci-Fi purists will likely be let down by the lack of technology and big-scale military drama Card is often associated with. The overall approach here is one of a character-driven drama and not one based on intricate plots and Sci-Fi concepts. While this might disappoint some fans, it has a chance of drawing in readers who wouldn't otherwise pick up a Card novel.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Review: Dark Warrior Rising by Ed Greenwood

Ed Greenwood's new novel Dark Warrior Rising delivers a fantasy world heavily inspired by Norse mythology; dark elves known as Niflghar control a vast underground kingdom of pleasure and magic. Stolen from the surface world as a small child and forced to live as a slave under Niflghar rule, Orivon Firefist has grown into a skilled blacksmith and the most important servant for the beautiful yet cruel Lady Taerune Evendoom. When violence erupts in the city Taerune loses an arm and, because of her newfound ugliness, is banished by the beauty-worshipping Niflghar.


Although Orivon has dreamed of revenge since a small child he instead chooses to kidnap Taerune and forces her to guide him back to his home on the surface. On the run from skilled hunters and vicious monsters, the two must trust each other long enough to get through the dangers of the tunnels and to the freedom that waits for them above ground. A number of side-plots develop as different Niflghar families and even members within the same family use the chaos as an opportunity to raise their political stature by killing off rivals.

Greenwood is most widely known as the creator of the Forgotten Realms roleplaying universe (that’s old-school D&D, folks), and he puts his worldbuilding skills to wonderful use here. The system of magic has clear rules and the complex politics between families wonderfully heighten the dramatic tension throughout the novel. Although he tries to work in some minor sexual tension between Orivon and Taerune, it’s obvious it won’t come to be so it’s really no tension at all.

It reminds me of nothing more than Robert E. Howard’s Conan series----the basic events, the way he uses the language, the almost uncompromising dourness of the world all come together in a similar fashion. This dark, often grim tale doesn’t work in humor or romance, so while this action-packed novel will definitely satisfy fans of traditional sword-and-sorcery, unlike many other titles coming out these days it offers little to draw in readers who usually shy away from fantasy.


Saturday, December 15, 2007

Now That's Classy

So several years ago Laphroaig, one of the world's premier makers of scotch whiskey, had this offer for fans. If you filled out a survey, they sent a certificate naming you a "part-owner". It's basically a fan club for the peaty drink, but if you show up at their factory with the membership certificate in-hand you are entitled one free dram of scotch a year. I figured what the hell, signed myself up and made it a Christmas present for all the fellow scotch drinkers I knew at the time----my dad, my uncle, my grandpa, and two friends I had at work at the time.

A few years ago the company started sending small holiday gifts. We've gotten cards, tree ornaments, recipes, and a bunch of other random things loosely associated with Laphroaig. But this year they topped themselves.


Yes, that's right. This year they sent out official Laproaig lapel pins! It's probably too small to read, but under the "L" logo it reads "Spirited Folk of Oak and Smoke". I might wear mine next time I visit my dad and see if he has his on. We'll be one big dorky family of scotch drinkers.

I can't believe how excited I am by this. I really don't care what else I get for holiday gifts this year.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Pratchett News

I heard about this from one of my colleagues at the library. Terry Pratchett, author of the mega-popular Discworld series, has been diagnosed with a form of early onset Alzheimer's. This doesn't by any means suggest the end of his career, just a change to it. Having seen one relative go through Alzheimer's and now witnessing another go through dementia, I really feel for him, his family and his friends.

You can read a copy of Pratchett's official letter about this here. I'm amazed, and somewhat awed, that he's able to write this with his trademark touch of humor.


Thursday, December 06, 2007

Metro, Why Have You Spurned Me So?

Damn Metro

I was flying high earlier today. We finished up the group project on disaster plans for my University Libraries class, and I was feeling pretty good about it. I spent most of last night editing, streamlining and honing what we had and I think we had a pretty good paper set to hand in. On top of that, I was feeling pretty good about the presentation we had to make on the topic as well.

I left for class a good hour early. Sometimes metro gets spiteful and things can take 30 minutes or so longer than you plan on. It often happens when you least want it to, and I wanted to make sure I was on campus in plenty of time. Unfortunately an hour wasn't nearly enough of a buffer today.

I was happily sitting in my seat on the train, half reading an old interview with Mark Leyner and half watching the scenery flit by. The driver's voice came over the load speakers and I heard the least favorite words of metro commuters around the world, "I've just received reports of a suspicious package at the Pentagon Metro stop. We can't go any farther than Pentagon City. Any passengers wanting to go downtown can catch a free shuttle bus."

I shrugged my shoulders and thought I'd still be ok. But when I came out of the metro stop instead of finding a shuttle ready to take me downtown I found a writhing, angry mob full of people ready to be just about anywhere but that street corner. There were probably three train-fulls of people there, and more filing in behind me.

Shuttles were provided, but only about every 20 minutes. Each one barely made a dent in the crowd. And for some reason every other shuttle was going south instead north, the way to downtown. No one seemed to understand that, not even the metro employees doing what little they could to keep a frustrated mob informed. After an hour or so, I made it half-way through the mass of people. Only another hour of waiting and salvation would be mine. Fortunately, the trains started run soon after that and I finally made it to campus.

Long story short, I eventually made it. A ride that normally takes an hour and fifteen minutes took three and half hours. Thanks to a quick phone call to Miss L, I was able to get an email to the other two people in my group and they were very nice about the whole thing. I made it just in time to be the last group make a presentation and it went pretty well, despite my bedraggled look and spent emotions when I first got there.

Why am I blogging about this? I have no idea. I just know these metro problems have been hitting me more frequently the last few months than they ever did when I rode metro every day. But you never realize how much you depend on things like public transportation to work until they fail. We humans really are quite hopeless little creatures.

Ah well. One more paper to go. This one's an annotated bibliography on reference sources for science fiction. So hopefully this one will be fun.


Sunday, December 02, 2007

Review: Weirdling by Mike Dubisch

Weirdling is the perfect name for this odd but well executed sci-fi horror from Mike Dubisch. It tells the story of Anna Mandretta, a shipmate on a submarine far in the future. Mandretta, her ship and fellow crewmates all float through the dark, nightmarish oceans on a distant planet. Earth in this future is at war with the Xax, an alien species with technology and ways mankind doesn't really understand. The stress is palpable on the ship and it's obvious that everyone onboard is terrified of the inhuman aliens they are sworn to fight.


In their downtime hours Mandretta and the rest relax by smoking pot----both alcohol and tobacco are outlawed in this future, but there's cannabis aplenty---and logging plenty of hours with a lucid dreaming device that makes dreams feel as sharp are reality. It's this dreaming reality that becomes the second part of the story.


In Anna's dreams she's a doctor in Victorian England. We see her operating on a baby with tumor on its head that's slowing becoming a mouth---quite possibly the most terrifying image of the whole book. Anna is unable to save the boy, but the the boy's father doesn't seem upset or even disappointed. He apparently believes his son will come back to life and usher in a new age for an ancient god and that Anna is to play a major part in the god's return.


As the stories flip back and forth, paranoia plays a major part as both Anna and the readers question which reality is the one to believe in. The real fun begins, though, when the two stories bleed into each other. People from one reality start appearing in the other, and a good number of connections develop between the Xax in the sci-fi world and the demon-god in the Victorian world. Both stories twist into each other fairly well, with no hanging pieces left unattached to the main story.

The sci-fi elements, in general, are stronger than the Victorian-style horror, which owes a lot to Lovecraft. While I happily sit on the first pew at the church of HP Lovecraft, Dubisch doesn't bring in a lot to freshen up the old ideas. The Sci-fi sections certainly has its strong influences as well, particulary Philip K. Dick, but the story here is built up more so it feels both within in the tradition of PKD but also totally new. I suppose you could argue that since the sci-fi world is the real world in this story it should be the one that's more developed, but the tale could have worked in deeper layers if both sides were covered with equal depth.


Dubisch's artwork is a bit different from most comics of today. The backgrounds are highly detailed, while pieces in the foreground often more sketchy. The more terrifying moments often dip into psychedelia to highlight the terror. I personally love the artwork. It pulls directly out of the visual styles of the old horror zines of the 50's and 60's. Having seen the work in his new collection as well as his website, I've seen that he's capable of a broad range of styles. I have to think that it's purposeful.

Overall Dubisch delivers a well crafted comic with high appeal for fans of old-school sci-fi and horror comics. What he's created, while not entirely fresh is a blending of forms lovers of the old style of even aficionados of indie comics will love. I'm not sure, though, how much this can draw in readers more used to the big 2 of comics. But then I don't think that's who this book is for anyway.