Science and SF comics covers again

Along with preserving artifacts and sights of the past some scientists want to preserve smells.

Can we make a mummy speak?

A century ago, a British barrister bought Stonehenge at auction for £6,600.

The government spent tens of millions to get a treatment for chemical weapon attacks. The maker won’t guarantee it works.

Why we have too many ventilators. Not incompetence, just changes in medical procedure.

If you think social media and disinformation are bad now, deepfakes will make things worse. Forensic science can exposes fakes, but let’s face it, most of us (myself included) aren’t likely to probe that deeply.

Some ESP research may not have proved psi exists, but it shows a boatload of problems with psychological research. Not that psychology is unique in this.

Annie Jump Cannon developed the modern system for classifying stars. Like so many women in science, she didn’t get the credit she deserved.

I’ve read speculation that AI could eventually replace writers. Here’s an example.

Experiments question the fundamentals of quantum theory.

#SFWApro. Covers top to bottom by Murphy Anderson, Gil Kane, Nick Cardy, Kane, Kane and Kane

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First do no harm: Star Trek’s Prime Directive

Star Trek‘s Prime Directive is a nice moral statement but a pain in the butt when it came to actually writing episodes.

The Prime Directive, as every Trekkie knows, is the rule that the Federation and its starships don’t interfere with cultures that have not achieved spaceflight. No intervening in them politically or changing their natural course of development. No giving them signs that life exists beyond their world, such as showing advanced tech or evidence of alien life. This is so fundamental, if it’s choice between saving your ship, your crew and yourself and breaking the Prime Directive, a starship captain should choose death before dishonor.

I’ve read this was partly a pushback against the Vietnam War. During the Eisenhower presidency the U.S. had supported the French colonial regime to stop the Vietnamese independence movement — communist oriented, therefore the bad guys — from winning. Eventually the country divided into two parts, North and South Vietnam, with elections to follow; as it was obvious the revolutionaries would win, the U.S. and its allies refused to let elections happen. Instead, we provided military support for South Vietnam, then eventually committed our own troops. It was a major scar and influence on U.S. society at the time, and increasing numbers of people went anti-war (you can read Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam for an excellent history of the nation and the war).

Vietnam wasn’t a unique screw-up. We overthrew lots of democratic governments in the 20th century — El Salvador, Guatemala, Iran, Chile — because we didn’t like who the people voted for. While we saw ourselves as the champion of freedom against tyranny, all too often we went in the other direction. And as David Rieff says in A Bed for the Night, any attempt at a humanitarian military intervention is a contradiction in terms: military force isn’t humanitarian in nature. As in a lot of things, I think the part of the Hippocratic Oath that says “first, do no harm” might be good advice for us.

In practice, though, the rule was a mess. If we go by the Prime Directive, Kirk had no right to challenge the Landru-computer’s control of its world in Return of the Archons, or to take down Vaal in The Apple. Indeed, the latter story seems like a textbook example — Vaal’s control of his people is totalitarian, but it does apparently keep them at peace, happy and immortal. Will destroying Vaal improve things? Will shutting down the war computers in A Taste of Armageddon actually end the nightmare war, or will they go fully nuclear? As a kid, these episodes worked fine; as an adult I wonder if Kirk has not, in fact, done harm.

Of course not intervening is the opposite of how we expect heroes to work. When good guys stumble into a tyrannical society, fictional convention says they’re supposed to liberate the people, not turn a blind eye. That can, of course, make for dramatic tension, but it could obviously turn a lot of people off: what if the Enterprise crew doesn’t intervene at all to affect the repressive caste system of The Cloud Minders?

There have been multiple expansions and explanations of the details of the directive to handle all the contradictions and try to rationalize it. Ultimately it’s an interesting idea but very awkward, perhaps unworkable, in practice.

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“Stick to the status quo” … or don’t

(Title inspired by the song from High School Musical. Two discussions of the status quo follow)

Sticking to the status quo is an understandable impulse, especially in any sort of series. If you write about a single PI who beds a different woman each book, marrying him off can kill off audience interest (case in point, Carter Brown’s various swinger protagonists). When the creators have a set-up that involves sexual/romantic tension — will they or won’t they go to bed? Will Superman ever tell Lois his identity? — they often worry that resolving the big issue will have the same effect. If the urban fantasy premise requires magic fly under the radar in a secret war, you don’t want it going public.

Trouble is, this can easily lead writers to cheat. Superman II, for example, has Lois finally discover Clark’s identity; he renounces his powers to be with her, but then he has to take them back to stop the bad guy. At the end, Clark resolves the conflict by kissing her and wiping her memory that he’s Superman. Everything back to normal, cue Superman III (which wound up not using Lois). Only … how the hell does he do it? Sure, Superman has powers far beyond those of ordinary mortals, but they aren’t magic; he can’t just induce amnesia with a kiss because the plot calls for it. And it didn’t really call for it (even given Lois was kind of upset and confused about the situation), it was the long-term future of the franchise that did (this was years before the comics and Lois and Clark proved he could unmask and they could get married and the series wouldn’t die).

Likewise after a certain point straining to keep sexual tension up by throwing new obstacles in their path just gets ridiculous. While I wasn’t a fan of the 1990s sitcom Anything But Love, I give the creators top marks for ending the sexual tension after about a season rather than keeping it frozen. As one of the producers said, having a relationship actually happen doesn’t mean everything gets easy or no obstacles crop up

It’s really frustrating in comics. I’ve read stories of several creators who made changes during their run, then promptly undid them so that the next writer would have the same options and characters available they did. I mean, what’s the point of that? Or the countless examples of creators going back years later and unmaking changes to the status quo. Barry Allen replaces Wally West and becomes the Flash again. Spider-Man’s marriage gets erased. And so on. People in the industry talk a lot about how fans don’t want change, just “the illusion of change,” but it’s far more the writers. Sometimes I wish they’d just take the pieces on the board and play from there instead of starting the game over.

For another take on the status quo we have a thread by mystery novelist Laura Lippman complaining that the whole point of mystery fiction is to restore the status quo: catch the killer, solve the crime, restore order. And this “presumes the status quo is worth restoring.” Instead writers should think whether the protagonist’s job is “to restore the old order or create a new one.” (Barbara Ross has some thoughts in response). It strikes me the same could be said about a lot of SF: in a 1950s monster movie/alien invasion story, the typical response is that things are OK once the monster is destroyed. But society still goes on its merry way, with racism, sexism, etc. unchanged.

It’s certainly possible to do a novel where the protagonist does more. Day of the Triffids is very much about the chance to start the world over, though Wyndham isn’t very clear how that will work out. Impossible Takes a Little Longer will end with KC hopefully making some serious changes. And I’ve seen a blacksploitation movie or two that shows the protagonist making the system at least a little fairer, pushing back against the white powers that be. Swashbucklers are all about creating a more just society, albeit in most cases by putting a good king on the throne rather than a bad king. Zen Cho manages it well in Sorcerer to the Crown and I do love that it focuses on systemic change for women, not just changing things for the female lead.

But as a general rule … I don’t buy it. Most protagonists aren’t in a position to reform the status quo or create a new order beyond toppling a corrupt official or two. It wouldn’t be believable beyond a certain point if they tried — if there’s one thing the past few years have demonstrated, making sweeping changes is hard. As journalist David Rieff says, sometimes applying a bandage is all you can do. Even in a book like Lovecraft Country, which deals with systemic racism, the most the good guys can do is break free from the control of one particular racist — they can’t make the system fairer (it is, after all, the “real” 1950s, so we know Jim Crow segregation ain’t going away yet). In SF it’s possible — we can assume that the protagonists in the Star Wars universe do make things better for everyone (then again, does defeating the Empire end anti-droid prejudice?) — but the closer it gets to reality, the harder a sell I think it is.

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So now we’re supposed to heal our broken nation and achieve unity …

According to some articles, what many people want to see from President Biden (and did during the past four years as well) is unity in government. No more hate, no more anger, no more Twitter rants. And that applies to us too: Biden voters should be reaching out and sympathizing with Trump voters. We need to show empathy — didn’t we feel just like this in 2016? Give them time to process their emotions and move on. To which I say, dude, WTF?

This is not at all equivalent to 2016: we were pissed and horrified, sure (and the past four years have shown we were right to be) but nobody doubted Trump had won, however hinky his route to the White House. We were not sitting there insisting he wasn’t a real president and that Clinton had actually gotten the electoral voes. Republicans are in denial and being nice to them probably won’t help (no. not even if Biden pardoned Trump).  And I don’t recall anyone at the time saying that Republicans should reach out and be sympathetic (not that they’d have listened). Heck, if you’ll remember, a lot of us Democrats were anticipating a Congressional landslide instead of Biden facing (probably) a Republican dominated Senate where Moscow Mitch will deep six every Biden initiative he can. Shouldn’t Trump voters be sympathizing with us.

I understand that many Trump voters are shocked they lost — didn’t Pat Robertson and other evangelicals prophesy for God that Trump would win? And they’re convinced that evil has triumphed. But they’re wrong. All that happened was that they lost an election. Republicans will have a shot — better than they should — at recovering the White House in four years. In that time, Biden and Harris will not destroy America, lock up Christians or turn their kids over to a Satanist pedophile cult that drinks children’s blood. Our fears that Trump would be anti-gay, misogynist, anti-immigrant, racist and generally incompetent turned out justified.

I think this is another version of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ axiom, that “white racial grievance enjoys automatic credibility.” Trump supporters’ suffering has to be taken seriously in a way the more diverse liberal wing doesn’t. That said, I can understand the desire for unity but how do we reach that with millions of voters embracing QAnon or white supremacy (or both) or willing to tolerate them? Or insisting the Trump Virus isn’t real even as they die from it.

The truth is we’ve never really been a united country. We weren’t united under slavery: slaves and masters were not on the same page, nor were slave-owners and abolitionists. Nor in WW II, despite the image of everyone pulling together to fight the Axis. Some American businesses traded with Germany throughout the war; some people preferred Hitler to FDR. The government shipped Japanese-American citizens to concentration camps and sent 2,000 citizens to Japan in exchange for American POWs. The Army was segregated and soldiers stationed in the south had to abide by Jim Crow laws. Gay sex and interracial marriage were illegal. As soon as the war was over, the government and big business snatched the jobs women had taken in the war away from them.

As Martin Luther King said, what we hadn’t wasn’t unity but a “period when the Negro was complacently adjusted to segregation, discrimination, insult, and exploitation.” Ditto women. Ditto gays. It looked united because society managed to contain protests and pushbacks and keep things relatively stable. But the fissures were there. As King said, we can’t get from the “old negative obnoxious peace which is merely the absence of tension” to “a positive, lasting peace, which is the presence of brotherhood and justice” without tension and disunity. And we have to make that shift to survive and recover from the failed state we seem to be turning into. Brotherhood and justice require equality; that’s hard to achieve when a large chunk of this country wants to roll back the achievements of Selma, Stonewall and Seneca Falls.

So yeah, unity’s nice, but there’s going to be a lot of tension first. And we can’t run away from it.

But as proof that sometimes good guys win one, LGM thinks the Affordable Care Act will survive the Supreme Court. And Trump’s “bring back the gold standard” pick for Federal Reserve couldn’t get confirmed in the Senate.

It’s a start.

 

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From Radio to Ivanhoe: books read

SAME TIME, SAME CHANNEL: An A-to-Z Guide to Radio from Jack Benny to Howard Stern by Ron Lackmann disappointed the heck out of me. Lackmann has relatively little to say about the plots or characters of the various shows, instead focusing on rattling off the cast lists, sponsors and networks (in fairness, this was apparently tough stuff to figure out when this book came out in the 1990s). It’s also sloppily edited — the Kaye, Danny entry says to see Danny Kaye Show, which doesn’t have an entry — and with a few too many errors (the Fu Manchu movie serial was Drums of Fu Manchu, not Shadow of).

THE BLIND SPOT by Austin Hall and Homer Eon Flint worked better for me than when I read it in college, but ultimately it still fails. A philosopher announces his next lecture will shatter the “blind spot” that makes us think the occult is beyond scientific understanding. After he vanishes in the company of the mysterious Ramda Avec, the protagonists search a mysterious, spooky old house for answers and discover ties to a magical world. This part is readable, though slow, but when we cross through the house to a parallel world, it becomes a complete slog to get through. The focus shifts to a minor and uninteresting supporting character and the setting is a third-rate Edgar Rice Burroughs Lost Race story when what’s needed is an A. Merritt-class exotic world. The Virgil Finlay cover is too good for the work it depicts.

I checked out THE BEST OF RICHARD MATHESON from the library to see if the source story for The Stranger Within was included; it wasn’t, but as I’m a Matheson fan I read it through anyway, though skipping the stories I already have. A vampire plans his own funeral. A janitor becomes a genius. A woman fights the killer doll stalking through her apartment (that one I did reread). Some of the stories didn’t work, but overall most satisfactory.

Edward Eager’s KNIGHT’S CASTLE has the next generation of the family in Half Magic and Magic By the Lake get their own adventure when magic sucks them into a castle playset to keep re-enacting messed-up versions of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe: knights in the 20th century, battles with angry dolls and having Prince John turn into a parody of Stalin (“No one can get past this iron curtain!”). Not up to the first two books but still charming; like so many Ivanhoe riffs, this has the hero and Rebecca wind up together (it’s the unanimous opinion of Scott fans that she’s way more interesting than the romantic lead Rowena).

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To the stars – and also to New Jersey: movies viewed

BEYOND THE SKY (2018) has a UFO skeptic (“My father claimed mom never came back because she was abducted — I’m going to prove that’s just another of his lies.”) falling for a young woman who claims she was abducted when she turned seven, then at 14 — and her 21st birthday is just a few days off. For most of its running time this is a watchable, if unremarkable film but then the ending makes it memorable, but not in a good way: first we have a human implanting false memories of abduction for some incomprehensible reason, then it turns out Aliens Are Real (or are the last 20 minutes just an implanted hallucination?). This is one of several movies using the fringe UFO theory that aliens are actually time travelers (in this case future humans trying to understand the emotions they’ve bred out of themselves). “Back in the MK Ultra days it was trial and error, but now we’ve got it down to a science.”

SUPERMAN II (1980) is a sequel that holds up favorably to the original, as Clark and Lois become more than friends while Luthor liberates General Zod (Terence Stamp) and his allies from the Phantom Zone to get revenge on Superman. I was too distracted watching to enjoy it as much as it deserves, but I’m really impressed with how well they pull off the parallel plotlines, so that the film stays interesting even with Superman largely out of costume for the first half. A lot of the credit goes to the cast — in one scene, where Chris Reeve’s Superman actually gets hurt, his stunned incredulity is absolutely pitch-perfect. The battle is smaller scale than the spectacle of Man of Steel but it also has more heart and drama, treating the bystanders as people, not just figures in a video game. All that said, the ending hand-wave to reset a lot of the events in the film annoyed me seeing it on the big screen and hasn’t improved. “Your father and I tried to anticipate your every question, Kal-El. This is the one we had hoped you would not ask.”

I stuck my DVD of CASABLANCA (1942) into the player when I got tired of watching movies for Alien Visitors and didn’t feel like reading either. No question, it was the right choice — the story of Humphrey Bogart’s Rick discovering lost love Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) has walked into his bar out of all the bars in the world, and what followed after that, never disappoints me (I have a fuller review from the last time I watched it). And man, wouldn’t it be great if we could defeat fascism just by singing Le Marseillaise? Always a pleasure; Claude Rains, Sidney Greenstreet, Paul Henreid, SZ Sakall, Conrad Veidt and Peter Lorre make it that much more of one. “How extravagant you are, throwing away women like that. One day they might be scarce.” I got so little pleasure out of JERSEY BOYS (2014) that I gave up after an hour. The story of the Four Seasons was a successful jukebox musical on stage, but Clint Eastwood’s film version is a standard-issue musical biopic as four Jersey lowlifes and petty crooks rise into a celebrated super-group, though their career is marked by conflict, adultery and tragedy. I usually like Eastwood’s directing, but this never rose above cliches. “If you’re Italian, your name has to end in a vowel.”

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For obvious reasons, this was a short work week

As usual for the last week of the month there was no Leaf to work on. But my mind couldn’t seem to shift to Questionable Minds so I watched some movies for Alien Visitors and spent most of my time on Undead Sexist Cliches. I finished proofing the footnotes and I polished the text through the middle of Chapter Seven. So next month, I should be done with polishing too. Then it’s just going through the steps to get it into book form at Draft2Digital and then Amazon, including writing cover copy and and getting the cover art.

I’m actually a little nervous: this topic is much more serious than my film books which makes me more concerned that I’ve done everything right and that my reasoning is rigorous. But I will, of course, press ahead. It will be done within a couple of months, and I can stop spending writing time on it. And if it contributes at all to the fight against male supremacy, well that’ll be awesome.

Thursday, of course, was Thanksgiving, which hasn’t been turkey day for me for more than twenty years. Normally we’d be eating at Café Parizade, which has the largest vegan Thanksgiving in the southeast (neither TYG nor I is vegan, but we do quite a few vegan events). This year, of course, is not normal, so I paid for takeout, then drove yesterday to pick it up. That was both exhilarating (whee, a trip somewhere besides the vet!) and unsettling (driving somewhere other than the vet! What if the car explodes?).  And I was also worried I’d made a bad call and the meal wouldn’t be substantial enough to be worth the money.

I needn’t have worried. Parizade’s portions were generous and while the menu wasn’t as diverse as the usual buffet, it was quite satisfactory: seitan cubes, pasta and veggies, garlicky mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts (TYG had those. I can’t stand ’em), blueberry crumble, quinoa with veggies and several desserts. We did miss not being able to go back to the dessert table repeatedly, but on the plus side we were able to keep the leftovers so I didn’t feel the need to stuff myself to get my money’s worth. Or at least not stuff myself as much.

I’d planned a Zoom call with my family but there was a confusion about time so I had one call with my bro at 3PM and one with my sister and Dad at 4. Still fun.

Today I made a zucchini lasagna, which I’d planned to make Thursday — it’s one of TYG’s favorites — if we’d been doing our own cooking. And I started thinking about my December writing schedule and plans for next year.

To wrap up the week here’s a delightful painting by Gervasio Gallardo, who did so many amazing covers for Ballantine Books.#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.

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An amusing (to me, at least) cover

I can’t imagine a kids comic book today would show the lead characters smoking without raising a hue and cry. Back then (1960, several years before the once-legendary surgeon’s general report officially labeled cigarettes as a cancer risk) anti-smoking types were looked on as crackpots. #SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.

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Something you can be thankful for

You haven’t been struck by any beams from space lately, have you?

Of course, if you have, I apologize for my insensitive comment.

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I have much to be thankful for

I’m married to TYG, who is better than I deserve and more remarkable and awesome than my fantasies ever were.

I have Plushie —

Trixie — — and now Wisp.TYG and I remain in good health (knock wood) and we’re both able to work from home (and since TYG started doing that, it’s destressed her so much).

In lieu of going out, we’ll be having an excellent vegan Thanksgiving takeout later today from Cafe Parizade.

I do my best to stay conscious of how amazingly lucky I am and never take it for granted.

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