Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Sci-Fi Ghetto

Visiting Barnes & Noble the other day, I once again noticed the "Sci-Fi Ghetto" syndrome. Here are the publisher's descriptions of two novels; try to guess in which section of the bookstore I found each title:
Robert Neville may well be the only survivor of an incurable plague that has mutated every other man, woman, and child into bloodthirsty, nocturnal creatures who are determined to destroy him.
By day, he scavenges for food and supplies, desperate to find any other survivors who might be out there. But all the while the infected lurk in the shadows, watching his every move, waiting for him to make a mistake...
How about this one...
In an Arizona desert a man wanders in a daze, speaking words that make no sense. Within twenty-four hours he is dead, his body swiftly cremated by his only known associates. Halfway around the world archaeologists make a shocking discovery at a medieval site. Suddenly they are swept off to the headquarters of a secretive multinational corporation that has developed an astounding technology. Now this group is about to get a chance not to study the past but to enter it. And with history opened to the present, the dead awakened to the living, these men and women will soon find themselves fighting for their very survival - six hundred years ago...
The first book is Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend while the second book is Michael Crichton's Timeline. Clearly, both novels fall into the category of science fiction. But both books, along with just about every work by these authors, are located in the Fiction and Literature section rather than in the Science Fiction and Fantasy section. The label under the publisher's logo on the spines of both books explicitly states that these books are "fiction". This is ironic when Tor, the publisher of the most recent printing of I Am Legend, made its mark by being a publisher of science fiction and fantasy. Nearly every other novel published by Tor is labeled "science fiction" or "fantasy". The novels of Stephen King, who made his reputation writing sci-fi with elements of horror, are also labeled as simple "fiction" and are rarely to be found in the "Science Fiction and Fantasy" section.

This article about the Sci-Fi Ghetto (which specifically refers to television but is equally applicable to literature), best describes the phenomenon:
The Sci-Fi Ghetto reflects a long-lasting stigma which has been applied towards the science fiction genre, which frequently leads creators and marketers to shun "Sci-Fi", "Science Fiction" or "Fantasy" labels as much as possible, even on shows that have clear science fiction or fantastical elements. It also reflects the tendency for critics, academics and other creators to near-automatically dismiss or disdain works which cannot escape this label being applied, regardless of relative quality or merit.
This explains why I didn't know that Lost is a science fiction show until recently. I would have watched it had I known that.

I suppose this attitude bothers me because it seems to imply that sci-fi and fantasy fans are a less-than-desirable group (even though we spend plenty of money on our interests). The article also suggests that the term "graphic novel" was invented "to make people feel less ridiculous" when talking about comic books.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

The most effective way you could get me to read Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice would be to modify it to better appeal to my interests. Maybe if the setting were moved from 19th century England to space... and add aliens and space battles. Or, as Seth Grahame-Smith has done with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, you could make most of the major characters (e.g., the Bennet Sisters, Mr. Darcy) masters of the "deadly arts" (Chinese martial arts for the Bennet sisters and Japanese for Mr. Darcy) and add "ultraviolent zombie mayhem".

Most of the original novel is intact (hence Jane Austin is listed as the first author): Mrs. Bennet is still trying to get her daughters married off and Mr. Darcy still comes off as arrogant jerk until the last half of the book. Now, though, the British isles are overrun by the undead, who are hungry for human flesh. The Bennet Sisters' frequent visits to Netherfield are occasionally interrupted by skirmishes with zombie hordes, the ball in which the Bennet Sisters first meet Mr. Darcy and a dinner at Netherfield are interrupted by zombie massacres, and Elizabeth's friend, Charlotte Lucas, spends much of the book slowly being zombified while her husband, Cousin Collins, remains blissfully unaware.

Although I enjoyed the book, I'm not entirely certain what audience it was written for. I don't see most readers of Austin as the kind that would enjoy the addition of zombies and martial arts. And most who want to read about ninjas and the undead probably don't want to read anything by Jane Austin. There's not enough zombie content added to make someone who would dislike Pride and Prejudice enjoy Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Since I can enjoy both classical literature as well as offbeat sci-fi and fantasy (I prefer the latter), an oddity like this book works perfectly well for me. I would have liked to see Grahame-Smith add some sort of climactic zombie siege of Longbourn, though. I wouldn't have thought there were enough people out there with similar tastes to put this book on the New York Times bestseller list. 

Monday, May 17, 2010

Wasted Weekend

I work the so-called 9/80 schedule, which means I work nine days over a period of two weeks for a total of 80 hours. Of course, this doesn't include a 25 minute lunch period or the two and a half hours of commuting, which keep me away from home for more than 12 hours a day. The 9/80 schedule, which gives me a three day weekend every other week, is meant to partially compensate for that. Well, since I've been working overtime on a project recently, this past weekend was my first three day weekend in a couple months. This meant that, in accordance with Murphy's Law, a good portion of the weekend was going to be ruined.

I have temporal mandibular joint disorder (TMJ disorder or sometimes TMD) in the right side of my jaw, meaning that the cartilage in the joint is damaged. Opening my jaw causes popping and grinding noises that are sometimes loud enough to be heard by people several feet away. It causes constant headaches and pain in the right side of my face, teeth, right eye, and neck. For the most part I've gotten used to it and have learned to appreciate the good days and tolerate the bad. This Saturday, though, was the first time I experienced another common effect of TMD; a full blown migraine complete with light sensitivity, nausea, and vertigo. The day went something like this:

7:00 AM:
I wake up and realize immediately that I'm not going to get far from bed. I retrieve the mp3 player and lay back down. There are rodents in my brain and they're trying to get out.

11:00 AM:
My wife brings soup and crackers. The soup calms my stomach but the act of chewing the crackers aggravates the TMJ, making the headache worse.

11:30 AM:
I take a shower, expecting the hot water to reduce the pain. It does, but only temporarily. The wave of nausea that hits me as I get out of the shower sends me right back to bed.

12:00 PM-1:30 PM:
I sleep through the score to 300 (one of my more energetic movie soundtracks).

2:00 PM:
Feeling a little better, I get out of bed just to end up sitting on the couch and staring straight ahead like a zombie. Someone please remove the rodents from inside my skull.

2:30 PM:
Not wanting to be totally useless, I help clean the house by vacuuming the living room. Did you know that physical exertion makes migraines worse? Now I do. The rodents have found little jackhammers and are working in shifts.

5:00 PM:
The rodents are getting tired and my stomach is calming down a bit. The Internet is my friend because it distracts me.

8:00 PM:
My wife runs to the store and brings back Excedrin.

9:00 PM:
The rodents go into comas from Excedrin poisoning and I return to my usual level of TMJ pain. I'm allowed back into the Land of the Living.

I'm sure the rodents are plotting revenge at this very moment...

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Great Quotes: James Madison

Like other Founding Fathers, James Madison (the "Father of the Constitution") was a great source for quotes on government. This particular quote strikes me because, like so many other wise sayings, it still rings true today:

"All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree."

In a space of less than two years the Federal government has seized an unprecedented amount of power over the economy and Americans' health with the so-called Obamacare bill, is trying to gain even greater authority with a financial reform bill that would potentially allow the Fed to intervene in the affairs of any company it deems "too big to fail", and is committing our country to ever increasing deficit spending that will enslave our children with insurmountable debt.

Maybe it's time we took Madison's advice and distrusted the power-hungry politicians in our government enough to kick the bums out come election time.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Bachelor Movie Marathon, Part V: The Final Chapter

In the final few days before my family got back from California, I made it a post-work habit to make dinner and eat it while watching an MST3K episode. Because I had exhausted all the episodes in my new Volume XVII collection, I started rewatching the first volumes in the series. I  skipped Volume 1's The Creeping Terror since I had watched it only a few months before and because it's one of the most excruciatingly bad movies I've ever seen. Maybe even worse than The Blood Waters of Dr. Z.

Bloodlust! (1961)
A ripoff of The Most Dangerous Game (1932) with two teenage couples filling in the roles of Joel McCrea and Fay Wray as the ones who are pursued by a mad hunter across his private island. Not only does this movie "borrow" the overall premise of its inspiration, but it recreates such details as the soon-to-be-dead drunk character, the villain who hunts with arrows to be more sporting, and the not-so-dead-as-previously-thought character returning to defeat the villain. Really, beyond "inferior ripoff of The Most Dangerous Game", there's not much to be said about Bloodlust!  (although the crew of MST3K do a great job with this movie). One element that's missing is that, by replacing Joel McCrea's character with a bunch of teenagers, this movie lacks the irony of the intended victim being a world-renowned big game hunter who finds out the hard way how his prey feels.

Catalina Caper (1967)
Much to our dismay, the movie forces us to follow a bunch of teenagers heading to Catalina Island by cruise liner (with a special musical number by Little Richard!). Immediately before leaving for Catalina, the well-meaning but not particularly law-abiding parents of one of the teenagers steal an ancient manuscript. They intend to counterfeit the manuscript, sell the copy to a shady antiquities collector, and return the original to the museum. In between scenes of teenagers being "groovy" on the beach and of villains trying to obtain the scroll without paying for it, we get "comic" scenes of an insurance investigator spying on the parents and trying to bust them for some form of insurance fraud.

This movie is the perfect example of why the MST3K guys stayed away from comedies. Unlike a purportedly serious movie, which can be funny without trying to be, a bad comedy is unfunny by definition. There was little Joel and the 'bots could do for this movie, making it agony from beginning to end. The only reason this movie doesn't get an "F" from me is because it predates today's notion of extreme skinniness being the ideal of feminine beauty. Thus, many of the movie's actresses are naturally attractive.

Skydivers (1963)
The title says it all. Really. Well, I guess there's some sort of plot going on. A couple having marital problems runs a small airport and makes a living by giving skydiving lessons. There's an unfortunate death when one of their regular students violates the rules and tries to open his parachute below the required altitude. Scratch one minor character. Then the husband's jilted mistress teams up with a disgruntled former employee to put acid in the husband's parachute just before the big public demonstration. Scratch one major character. As the murderers flee by car, the cops follow by light aircraft, shooting at them along the way. Although I don't remember the villains carrying guns, the cops shoot them down during the foot chase anyway. Scratch the two most interesting characters in the movie.

Unfortunately, most of this movie is padding (much of it stock footage of skydiving) with the murder plot taking up only the last 15 minutes or so. Mike and the 'bots don't have a lot to go on with this one.
D (it avoids a lower grade because I actually like stock footage of skydiving)

Pod People (1983)
Here's another movie that was released under a variety of titles. An odd, furry alien with a long snout leaves its eggs in a cave somewhere in a forest. A poacher who comes across the eggs and smashes all but one of them is killed by the alien. In the meantime, a band (and one unwelcome groupie) goes off camping in the same woods. When the groupie falls off a cliff (and is infected, or injured, or... I don't know... the alien does something to her), the band takes her to the cabin of a grumpy man, his sister, and his irritating nephew. The nephew has found the surviving egg and brought it home where it grows into another alien being the nephew names "Trumpy". While the nephew goes through sitcom-esque adventures trying to hide Trumpy from the humans, mommy alien goes around killing the cast. The method of killing is never really explained; the alien seems to simply touch the victim, leaving behind a corpse with four glowing spots on the forehead. It's very confusing.

The most bizarre thing about this movie is its tone. While Trumpy is supposed to be cute and to invoke a sense of wonder (he has goofy stop-motion powers that make a single appearance and have no bearing on the plot), the other alien literally kills the majority of the cast before she herself is killed. It seems like the makers of the film tacked a kid-friendly E.T. ripoff into the middle of a typical alien horror movie late in production (rumor has it that the producers demanded exactly that based on the success of E.T. (1982)). Joel and the 'bots make the movie a lot more tolerable.


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