Cowboy Bebop – A Sci-Fi TV Review – Part 1

Years ago, I had read that Cowboy Bebop might have been one of the influences on the making of the TV show Firefly.  Being a big fan of Firefly, you would have thought that I would have tracked it down and watched Cowboy Bebop long ago.  And you would have been wrong.  I never did.  Now this might have been because it was an animated series.  Or maybe because it wasn’t originally an English language show.  Or maybe because I figured it wasn’t as good as Firefly.  Who knows?  Anyway, I started watching the first few episodes last week.  My first conclusion is that Joss Whedon definitely borrowed heavily from the look and feel of Cowboy Bebop.  Secondly, it is an enjoyable show and stands on its own merits.  Now let me qualify that second statement.  It’s a cartoon.  The characters and the action are larger than life.  When a gun fight breaks out bullets saturate every last square inch of wall space around the protagonist.  Every fight has fists and feet flying in all directions and every facial close up has clenched jaw muscles and popping eyes.  Basically, everything is exaggerated to cartoon level.  Oh, and there’s a Welsh Corgi as part of the crew of a space travelling bounty hunters.  Suffice it to say that reality is in no way a condition for something showing up in this show.  But the characters have consistent personalities, the look of the show is very well done, there’s a fascinating backstory with terrible enemies and mysterious women and the plots although wildly unrealistic are (in my opinion) enjoyable.  As I’ve said, I’ve only watched the first five episodes but I like it well enough to want to keep watching it.

 

Alright, now what’s it about?  Cowboy Bebop is a space ship that so far has a crew of three humans and one Welsh Corgi.  They are bounty hunters who work for whatever government (or other organization) that can provide a large enough pay day.  Like on Firefly the culture seems to be a combination of American and Chinese culture.  Also, as on Firefly, humans inhabit a number on moons and planets (but this time within our own solar system).  Cowboy Bebop seems to work on both sides of the interface between the criminal and legal spheres.  Their biggest problems seem to be monetary.  They are chronically short of funds.  The protagonist is named Spike and seems to be a young man in his thirties who enjoys his job as much for the fighting as for the rewards.  In his past, he worked for a very high-level mob boss.  Spike’s partner is an older man with a much angrier façade but can also be depended on in a fight.  The similarities to Mal and Jane Cobb in Firefly are pretty strong.  The regularity with which the ship comes up empty handed after a mission is also a point of similarity to Firefly.

I consider that I prefer live action movies to animation but I’ll go on record as saying that Cowboy Bebop seems a highly creative show and has many features that make it interesting and entertaining.  I look forward to seeing the remainder of the series and will report back on its qualities.

 

So now I know where Whedon got his inspiration.  And maybe his own effort may not have been the superior to the model.

Forbidden Planet – The Quintessential Sci-Fi Movie? – OCF Classic Movie Reviews

A lot of stuff has been said about what makes Forbidden Planet such an important sci-fi movie.  The ground-breaking special effects, the plot element of a human military vessel exploring space that would spawn the endless iterations of the Star Ship Enterprise.  And of course, there’s the classical angle.  Supposedly the plot is an update of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

So, there’s all that good stuff.  But to my mind the real reason can be summed up in two words, Anne Francis.  When the angelic face of Miss Francis first appears on screen I began to see the movie in the correct light.  This was an epic adventure story that rivalled the Odyssey of Homer for timelessness and meaning.  Now the fact that I was a sixteen-year old boy at the time probably colored my thought processes to some extent and the skimpiness of her costumes might even have had something to do with it.  But let’s face it, giant ants can only get you so far.  If you want to keep the natives from getting restless you have to appeal to their most powerful motivations and if a blonde-haired, blue eyed creature with a very pretty face and extremely long shapely unclad legs is brought center stage, suddenly even the acting skills of Leslie Nielsen seem greatly enhanced and worth a fair hearing.

But now that I’m in my dotage and no longer as easily swayed by a pretty face, I’ve had a chance to re-evaluate the movie.  Surprisingly, I’m still a big fan.  And this is despite the obvious weaknesses that are extremely evident in such an old film.  The dialog has some extremely cliché-ridden exchanges including:

  • The captain tells off the young woman because her uninhibited interest in the young men in his crew will be a distraction from military discipline.
  • Morbius displays the stereotypical arrogance of the academic intellectual toward the practical military authorities.
  • The banter provided by the ship’s cook is the comic relief that would seem right at home in an Abbott and Costello movie.

So what makes it good?  Well, the humans are mostly likeable and admirable.  The plot unwinds in a manner that allows for the gradual reveal of the mystery.  Of course, the who of the question is answered long before the why and how of the problem.  But the details provide reinforcement of the underlying lesson to learn.  We are reminded that smarter isn’t the same as perfect.

And the special effects are still pretty good.  The animation of the Krell infrastructure impresses the viewer with the gargantuan scope of the installation.  The humans walking through it literally look like ants at one point.

And finally, the interaction between the isolated inhabitants of this dream world and the crew of the no-nonsense military vessel is classic.  It reminds you of the stories that portray the first contact between Europeans and the South Sea Islands.  The sailors always have a feeling they have somehow discovered paradise with its idyllic climate, scantily clad, friendly women and tropical fruit. The military men are enthralled with how favorably it compares to the boring, spartan existence of their all-male naval vessel.

Are there problems with the story?  Yes.  Morbius seems a little too dense for a brilliant scientist.  The resolution of the crisis at the end is a little jarring.  The solution is quite heavy handed.  But all in all, it’s a pretty neat story.  I think it indicates why the Star Trek series was so popular.  But I think it also shows why the later tv series were less interesting.  The adventure and discovery aspects became less of a focus as the Enterprise became less of a military/exploration vessel and more of a social worker/nanny vehicle to the stars.

The Edge of Tomorrow – A Short Movie Review

Last night I watched the Tom Cruise movie “Edge of Tomorrow.”  The first thing that strikes me is that it is a sort of mixture of things.

First off, it’s a mil sci-fi movie.  It tells the story of aliens invading and battling humans.  Almost the entire movie takes place within the confines of a single battlefield.  And because it’s a big budget movie with a big star that part is done rather professionally.  The special effects and sets are very good looking.  The action takes place in England and France and Germany so there is the interest of seeing The Louvre and London engulfed in military paraphernalia and smashed by battle.  So, there’s all that.

Next, it’s a time travel story.  The gimmick is that Tom Cruise has been caught up in the gears of the aliens’ ability to alter the future.  Because of a chain of events involving his lucky killing of a high level alien, Cruise is effected in such a way that every time he gets killed in battle, it resets time back to the start of the day of the battle he’s in.  But when he returns to that day he remembers each of these past lives.  It’s sort of like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog’s Day.  So, even though he’s a complete neophyte to combat, he can learn from what happened to him on the previous incarnations.  Comically, after countless iterations he can effortlessly step through the battlefield performing a choreographed dance with death.  Of course, this means to keep advancing his progress on the battlefield he has to keep dying over and over again.

So, in a way, it’s also a metaphor for, or even a parody of someone playing a first-person shooter video game.  You keep playing the game and increasing your knowledge and skills.  You also have to die over and over and over.  And for anyone who has spent a lot of time playing one particular game you understand the psychologically painful experience of building up the necessary muscle memory and rote memorization of the endless sequences of motions and thought processes needed to wend your way to the next level.  That’s the feel this movie provides.

I’ll have to say it’s a mixed experience.  It’s both stimulating to sense the iterative advancement and at the same time irritating.  There’s one particular sequence that occurs almost endlessly during the movie.  It’s when he’s awakened by a sergeant screaming abuse into his face.  It must happen at least two dozen times.  By the end of the movie I’m genuinely hoping Cruise just clocks him in the face, just to shut him up.

So, does the movie work?  Yes, it does.  The initial introduction to Cruise’s character presents him as an unlikeable jerk.  By the end of the movie he has had to grow.  There’s even, believe it or not, the elements of a love story in the tale.  And, Lord help me, I know how ridiculous that seems in the context of a war movie.

Who is this movie for?  If you’re a Tom Cruise fan and you liked him in War of the Worlds and Minority Report you’ll probably like this movie a lot.  If you’re a mil sci-fi fan I think you’ll probably enjoy it.  If you don’t like science fiction or war movies you will hate this.  And if you’re neutral on Tom Cruise, sci-fi and war movies I think it’s 50/50.  It’s a good sci-fi movie and provides solid entertainment.  But it isn’t “Gone with the Wind” so if you’re looking for highly cerebral or morally meaningful move on.

Ray Bradbury – An American Original – Part 2 – The Short Stories

In the first part of this post, I’ve given a little background on how I became introduced to Ray Bradbury’s stories.  After detailing Dandelion Wine, I feel talking about his shorter works is the next order of business.  I own a collection of these called “The Stories of Ray Bradbury” which includes what Bradbury considered his best 100 short stories.  I went through these today and picked out my favorites.  I feel it’s necessary to qualify that statement.  There are more than a few of Bradbury’s best stories that have become components of the longer work Dandelion Wine.  Since I’ve already reviewed that work I’ve left these short stories out of this selection process.

Here are my selections for the best of the best in the same order as they appear in the book:

  1. The Crowd
  2. The Scythe
  3. The City
  4. There Was an Old Woman
  5. There Will Come Soft Rains
  6. The Veldt
  7. A Sound of Thunder
  8. Invisible Boy
  9. The Fog Horn
  10. Hail and Farewell
  11. The Great Wide World Over There
  12. Skeleton
  13. The Man Upstairs
  14. The Jar
  15. Touched with Fire
  16. The Town Where No One Got Off
  17. Boys! Grow Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar!
  18. The One Who Waits

Now here’s the thing.  I could easily have added double this number.  Almost all the stories are good.  But these are the ones I especially like.  So, this selection probably says more about me than it does about Bradbury’s best of the best.  But that can be said about any critic’s choices.

An interesting fact I discovered after making this list is that there are at least three stories in this list which I don’t think have any SF&F content in them whatsoever.  They are just studies in human nature.  And yet they appear on this list.  Which I take to mean that Bradbury finds people interesting and knows how to make them interesting to his readers.  Now, that may not seem remarkable, but look at the people writing at the same time as Bradbury.  Let’s take Isaac Asimov.  If you read Asimov’s long or short fiction what you will find is that he is a purveyor of ideas.  But his characters, even his protagonists are ciphers.  There isn’t any emotional content worth mentioning.  And that even counts the scenes where the action is dependent on an emotional response from one of his characters.  He could just as well have been describing billiard balls ricocheting around a pool table.  You might even see the psychological logic of the emotional response but you won’t experience empathy or interest in the character as a human being because of it.  It’s just a plot device.

This was why Bradbury was different back then.  He wrote people in SF&F stories as if they actually were people.  Better writers back then were also doing this to some extent.  Heinlein’s characters displayed more individuality than the average and this is one of the reasons why he is still enjoyed.  But Bradbury brought this to a much higher level.

What else can be definitely said about Bradbury’s stories?  I would say that he almost exclusively deals in the foreground of the picture.  By that I mean that his subjects are almost always face to face.  If Arthur C. Clarke were describing a nuclear holocaust you would see it from orbit.  You would see the ballistic paths of the ICBMs and you would be at the top of the parabola when one missile starts to descend.  And you would see the individual nuclear ignitions across the face of the globe like some fireworks display.  That’s not Bradbury.  With him you’ll see the aftermath of a suburban home on the edge of the kill zone.  You’ll see the toaster in the kitchen and you’ll see the shadows of the family imprinted onto the side of the house facing the gamma ray flash.

Even when Bradbury does write a story of aliens invading earth you are not going to get War of the Worlds.  You’ll get that same suburban neighborhood with husbands and housewives and little Jimmy working on his hobby in the basement.

So now I’ve said a bunch of words about Bradbury’s short fiction.  If you’re looking for hard-core technical sf or even just plain old amusing space opera do not stop at Bradbury.  Move right along.  There’s none of that here.  But if you want to delve into the mysterious world within a world that is the human soul take a trip with him.  It might strike a resonant chord.  Or it might not.  Either way you’ll learn something.

What Good Sci-Fi is Out There?

Sci-Fi movies have a long and checkered past. They run the gamut from such high concept films as 2001: A Space Odyssey to such dreck as Plan Nine from Outer Space. And in addition to quality these films vary by sub-genre. There are movies that concentrate on technology and how humans will adapt to it. This category includes such movies as I, Robot and The Martian. There are movies that are mostly about contacts with alien life of one form or another. This would include everything from War of the Worlds to Independence Day. Then there are movies that are basically monster movies like Alien and The Thing from Another World where the science fiction is just a vehicle to allow things to jump out at the protagonists from dark corners.
I will confess that I can enjoy almost any of these types of movies on any given day if given the chance. But it seems of late the quality of sci-fi is in decline. All kinds of money is being spent on special effects and the acting is really no worse than it’s been in the past. So what’s different?
First, I would say, is the quality of scripts. The words coming out of the characters mouths are getting less interesting. I have been assured that motion pictures are a visual medium in which dialogue is an ancillary dimension of the experience and entirely superfluous. That a good movie shows you not tells you. I disagree. Of course the visual is primary. But if the movie is about people then they need to talk to each other and if the dialogue is bad then the film is bad even if you blow up all the planets in the solar system in alphabetical order in vibrant Technicolor. Let me clarify one thing. I am not advocating for highly polished dramatic set pieces. Dialogue between a street dweller and a policeman can be good without breaking into Shakespeare. All I’m saying is the dialogue is either lame or non-existent in most sci-fi movies today.
Second, the majority of the protagonists are not particularly likeable. Once again let me qualify. I’m not saying I want the good guys to be boy scouts, far from it. But a flawed character can still be the character the audience identifies and empathizes with. As an example from detective fiction, think about Sam Spade. He’s cruel, selfish and violent. But there’s never any doubt whether we want him or his adversaries to come out on top. The characters now seem either evil or just ciphers.
And lastly, the stories that these movies are based on are usually not very substantial. Think of some of the great stories that have been written. Even restricting myself to one author, Heinlein, I could point out a dozen books and short stories that could be made into excellent films. Wouldn’t “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” make a great movie? And how about “Farmer in the Sky”? And I think audiences would eat up “Have Spacesuit Will Travel.” The danger is that the studios would turn each movie into a franchise and we’d be subjected to hacks tacking sequels onto completed stories. I’ve heard “Starship Troopers” might be remade as a faithful interpretation of the book. That would be great. But I’m not holding my breath.
Now I’ve ranted against what I don’t like. Let me see if I can identify some that I do. Caveat, I haven’t gone out of my way looking for good sci-fi. But I’ve managed to bump into a lot that’s bad. And I’m leaving out all things Star Wars and Star Trek. I won’t even go there.
• “The Martian” was okay. Despite the fact that I despise Matt Damon he did a decent job and the story though far from brilliant was somewhat engaging and clever.
• The first installment of “The Matrix” was pretty good. Granted it’s almost twenty years old but being much older I will include it in recent.
• If I’m allowed to stretch apocalyptic films as science fiction I’ll point to the “Book of Eli.”
So that’s it. Maybe I’ve missed some. If anybody has any movies from the last twenty years that past muster, leave a comment. We can discuss.

Ray Bradbury – An American Original – Part 1 – Dandelion Wine

 

When I was a kid back in the third quarter of the twentieth century I came upon science fiction in the children’s section of the Brooklyn Public Library.  And so I read Heinlein’s and Asimov’s juvenile sf stories.  As I got a little older I was able to borrow from the adult collection and soon discovered all the golden age authors and some of the newer, edgier writers.  But at a certain point I discovered Ray Bradbury.  I remember he had two collections called R is for Rocket, S is for Space.  But when I read them I found out he wasn’t writing space opera.  In fact, some of his stories didn’t seem to be science fiction at all.  At the time, I didn’t know what fantasy was.  They just seemed to be strange stories.  Later on, I found some of his stories showing up on “The Twilight Zone” TV series and this helped me categorize them as something weird and fun.  But whatever I called him Bradbury was different from the other writers I knew.  Each of his stories had to be evaluated on the merits.  Some of his stories lacked fantasy plot elements and at the time these stories seemed lacking in interest.  Others were almost horror stories and these kept my attention best.  Even his most externally identifiable science fiction stories, “The Martian Chronicles,” didn’t feel like other science fiction stories.  Even if there were ray guns and aliens and space ships it didn’t seem as if these were the point of the story.  They were more like parables or morality tales.  And to a kid this was perplexing.  But I always considered Bradbury as something worth reading.  He was high value.

Fast forward twenty years.  It was the late nineteen eighties.  I was in an old used bookstore in Boston during my lunch hour from a design engineering job I had.  I hadn’t read any science fiction in a while.  I was browsing through a pile of books that had been displayed earlier in the year as summer reading.  There was a used hard cover book with a mylar library-type jacket cover on and a cover painting of a little blond haired boy virtually covering the pavement with his chalk drawings of lines and shapes.  The book was called “Dandelion Wine” and the author was Ray Bradbury.  It was a novel length book and it surprised me because I didn’t remember Bradbury writing many novels.  At the time “Fahrenheit 451” was the only one I could think of.

On a lark, I bought it.  I put it on my bookshelf and figured I’d get to it when the project I was on slowed down.  Well I forgot all about that book and before that project slowed down I had changed jobs and was too busy for reading.  It was about nine months later in July, when I picked it up again.  I was going on vacation with my wife and kids to Old Orchard Beach, Maine for a week.  It’s a very working class old beach resort where middle class people go to sit by the ocean and let their kids dig sand castles and swim.  And later on, you can go down to the pier and buy bad pizza and ice cream for your kids and let them get fake tattoos or go down to the amusement park and watch them be centrifuged in the dozen or so kinetic devices that are used to extract dollars from parents and regurgitated food from kids’ stomachs.  The several years I brought my young family there are among the happiest memories I have.

Anyway, when the family settled in the beach house at night and the kids settled down to reading or watching the TV I picked up Dandelion Wine.  And I was surprised to find I had already read it.  But wait, not really, I’d read parts of it.  What Bradbury had done was patch together a number of his older stories along with transition scenes that tied them together, and make a narrative about a summer for a boy and his family and neighbors in Green Town, USA circa 1928.  What it really was, was an ode to the boyhood Ray Bradbury had lived and imagined in Waukegan, Illinois.  He used the memories of his childhood home and passed them through the story writing algorithm in his head and invented a world that struck me as remarkable.  Here were the mundane short stories that as a kid didn’t click with me because there were no monsters or space ships.  Now they were knitted together to talk about what was magical about being a twelve-year-old boy in a small mid-western town in the early twentieth century with three months of summer vacation ahead of you.  They are stories about family and friends and growing up and living and getting old and even dying.  And they are mostly about being a kid.

Since that summer I’ve re-read that book a dozen times in whole or part.  I mostly read it when I have some vacation time in summer.  This year I’ll be sixty.  When I read that book I’m not even sixteen, I’m twelve.  It’s remarkable.  I didn’t grow up in a small town.  I grew up on the relatively mean streets of Brooklyn, NY.  And I was born forty years after him.  But I can understand what he’s saying and feeling in his alter ego character.  He’s captured the essence of boyhood in its quintessential form, summer freedom.  And the setting is a simpler time and place.  It’s idyllic.  Not realistic but almost archetypal.

I imagine there are many for whom this type of story has no appeal.  It’s not high adventure or technical fun.  But if any of this strikes a chord try the book out.

Changeling’s Island by Dave Freer – A Very Short Review (by Proxy)

 

I have a relative, a boy in seventh grade, who is a ravenous reader of science fiction and fantasy (among other things).  Being a conservative and being allergic to anything smacking of political correct narrative fiction I have made it my practice to pass along the older stuff that I grew up on back in the time before fun was banned.  He digests these old books at a rate that seems almost supernatural.  But recently I bought something modern to see how that would fly.

I had heard good things about Dave Freer’s “Changeling’s Island.”  I ordered it on Amazon but instead of the usual two days, it took about two weeks.  I guess it had to be printed on order.  I did a quick read of the first couple of chapters and found it engaging and appropriate for my young reading machine.  I dropped it off a week ago and hoped he would like it.

Well, I spoke with him today and discovered that not only did he like it, he wanted more of the same.  Apparently, this was good stuff.  I told him I didn’t have any more at the moment but would check for more stuff from Freer.  He was unpleased at my unpreparedness to feed the machine with its new fuel of choice.  In desperation, I foisted off a set of the Foundation trilogy on him that I had been holding onto since 1970, and told him I’d try to do better in the future.  So now I have to find out if Freer has any other young adult sf&f available.  If not I’ll be responsible for disappointing the next generation.  Wish me luck.

The Eclectic Prince by Caspar Vega – A Short Book Review

Back on March 14th 2017 I reviewed favorably Mr. Vega’s novella “The Pink Beetle”.  That was the third installment of his “The Young Men in Pain Quartet Book Series.”  The Eclectic Prince is the first installment but the grouping is only thematic and not sequential so you may sample in any order.  As I noted in my earlier book review, Mr. Vega has a very distinct writing style.  He makes sudden transitions and violent plot shifts.  His characters are not introspective but very impulsive and action oriented.  The plot progresses rapidly but rarely linearly.

The first piece of information to convey is that this is an adult book.  There is a fair amount of sexual content that would be entirely inappropriate for even teenagers (in my opinion).  And there are some situations that are fairly disturbing from the point of view of conventional social mores.

Now for some personal information as a point of reference on my taste in books.  Full disclosure, I’m not typically a consumer of dark fiction.  I mostly inhabit the sunnier climes of story-telling.  I will indulge in something like Red Dragon or Silence of the Lambs if it’s very well written but it’s not my usual fare.

The Eclectic Prince is relatively dark.  There aren’t any good guys to cheer.  The protagonist at various times indulges in violent assault of a stranger and murder of a family friend.  And there are even darker doings that I will not mention so as not to spoil the story.  Suffice it to say he’s not such a nice guy.  And he’s not even justified in the sense that he’s getting revenge on someone who committed a terrible wrong against him.  He’s just a sociopath.

The outline of the story is episodic and consists of different vignettes that are tied together by the fantasy mechanism that underlines the story.  This mechanism isn’t entirely clear from the text and this vagueness adds to the seeming randomness of the plot.

Let me sum it up.  It’s a dark disturbing story of an unsympathetic protagonist, a kind of story that I would not typically choose to read.

But it’s well written, original and engaging in a transgressive way.  Once again Mr. Vega is in the tradition of a noir type story with a fantasy framework to remove the bizarre story from the realm of reality.  This allows some justification for suspending a very heavy bias against such a disagreeable protagonist.  For those who seek out this type of story I can wholeheartedly recommend it.  It is not for the faint of heart.

I haven’t decided whether to delve deeper into his quartet.  This type of story is, as I stated above, not my typical choice.  But maybe when I’m in a darker mood I’ll venture in again for another dose.

Scientists Real and Imagined – Part 2

In the first installment of this post I documented my education into the real world of scientists, how they saved the world from giant mutated insects and invented important stuff like flying cars. That time period was the 1960s. It was a carefree time full of youthful high jinx such as race riots and the Manson Family. Fast forward thirty years to 1993. A little movie came out called Matinee. It was about the 1960s. The movie employs a device that I like to call “a movie within a movie.” It’s called that because within the movie you are watching there is a movie being watched by the characters in the movie! It’s a wild concept.

The name of this internal movie is MANT. That’s a portmanteau for man-ant. The eponymous victim of this movie has been transformed from a man into a hybrid man/ ant creature. Once again radiation is involved and eventually the MANT reaches gigantic proportions. And right on schedule arrives the scientist that has glasses and a beard and explains all the technical jargon about this scientific problem. And by an amazing coincidence it’s our old friend Dr. “You’re Wiser Than We Are” from “The Thing from Another World” (Robert Cornthwaite). I mean, what are the odds? He makes such valuable pronouncements as “human/insect mutations are far from an exact science” and “My friend, you’ve suffered some of the worst that our little friend the atom has to offer. It can power a city or level it!”

I was fascinated by the changes I noted in Cornthwaite between the time he was in “The Thing” and “Mant”. No longer was he sympathetic toward the monsters. His allegiance had shifted back to humanity. I attributed this change to the smoldering resentment he felt after the Thing back-handed him into a wall in the earlier movie. Such ingratitude by the monster pushed our friend back into the Humanity First camp once again. I knew this was valuable information. I wrote it down!
Outside of the movie Mant (but inside of Matinee) a teenage girl (played by Lisa Jakub) is swept up in the drama surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis (and the premiere of Mant) in the southern Florida town of Key West. This girl is the daughter of beatniks and she has her world view changed by exposure to a young Navy brat who also happens to like horror movies. When the movie ends Lisa has gotten over her prejudices against military families and monster movies. What does this have to do with this post? Well it does link us back to the military but hang in there. I have another half-baked segue coming up.
Fast forward to 1998 and a blockbuster called Independence Day erupts onto the cinematic stage. Now it just so happens that there is an ex-Navy pilot named Russel Kay and by a strange coincidence (or is it) his daughter is played by Lisa Jakub! But her love of a navy brat in the last movie has landed her in this movie in a family headed by a delusional alcoholic ex-military flier. Although it’s not apparent how she feels about horror movies she definitely suffers some of the worst of what our friends the aliens have to offer. In Independence Day, the role of scientist is handled by Jeff Goldblum. He is an environmentalist computer scientist who’s always worried about recycling and is totally opposed to nuking the aliens. He’s worried that fallout is worse than extermination of the entire human race by death rays. But by the end of the movie he comes around and cheerfully nukes the aliens on their home base.
I was thinking of dragging this forward by following President Whitmore forward into Lake Placid (well the crocodile is very large) or following Jeff Goldblum into Jurassic Park and Independence Day 2 which has all kinds of scientific mumbo-jumbo and giant creatures but I’m getting tired.
Suffice it to say that even really stupid people and fat-headed scientists can see reality if monsters and giant insects start slapping them around.
And now my patient readers, the payoff.
All of this research has allowed me to formulate a unified theory of scientific behavior. Apparently all scientists are morons and can only learn about reality by being hit over the head by it. Therefore, I propose a new policy. Whenever a scientist dictates a policy based on fat-headed stupidity he should be forced to endure the solution himself until he either sees the error of his way or dies from the paradox of settled science.
For instance, if a climate scientist declares CO2 the death of the planet then he should not produce any of it himself. Now, I don’t propose that he cease breathing. Even though technically respiration is nothing but exchanging O2 for CO2. Let’s just let him slide on the breathing. But that’s all. No internal combustion engines or heating systems or electricity. In fact, nothing produced by technology supported by the industrial revolution. So that also eliminates batteries and solar cells and everything else made in a factory. And finally, I remind everyone that burning coal or oil or even wood produces CO2. So, this scientist is telling us to give up every bit of science going all the way back to the paleolithic age. So, let us limit our friend the scientist to killing fur-bearing animals and eating their flesh and wearing their pelts for warmth. Of course, he’s probably a vegan but we all have to make compromises when inconsistencies crop up.
That’s my plan in a nutshell. It should be amusing to see Al Gore dressed like Fred Flintstone and trying to catch a squirrel for breakfast.

Scientists Real and Imagined – Part 1

On Saturday afternoons when I was a kid I used to watch Million Dollar Movie on Channel 11 and was able to enjoy such science fiction classics as “Attack of the Crab Monsters” and “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.”  Right away I figured out that really big creatures that had been exposed to atomic radiation really liked to attack.  But as I became more sophisticated in my sci-fi viewing I eschewed such childish cinematic offerings in favor of more cerebral tales.  No more ridiculous giant crab stories.  I graduated to “Them” which is the realistic depiction of an attack by giant ants exposed to atomic radiation.  In this classic of the fifties I learned that scientists were old and wore glasses and looked like Santa Claus (except for the girl scientists who were young and didn’t even look like Mrs. Claus and tended to end up with the FBI agent who starred in the film, who in this case was James Arness of Gunsmoke fame).  And the best ones had British accents (or at worst New England accents).  Also, no matter what their area of specialization (e.g., physics, botany or myrmecology) they were all equally adept at battling giant creatures exposed to atomic radiation.  And they were full of esoteric and valuable information.  I found out that the plural of antenna wasn’t antennas but rather antennae!  This inspired in me a life-long love of the classical Greek and Latin languages.  And the most important characteristic of scientists was their love of knowledge.  Because of this thirst for knowledge, they were willing to venture into tunnels and basements where even the ubiquitous soldiers in their WWII vintage uniforms were afraid to go.  It also meant the scientists were very likely to be munched on by the mutant du jour of the story.  But you know, science.  So that is how I came to admire scientists.  They were cool and smart too.  And they always, always, always figured out how to kill the monsters.

But one Saturday, Million Dollar Movie was playing another sci-fi film, “The Thing from Another World.”  I was suspicious at first.  If it was from another world how did it get here?  Had it been exposed to atomic radiation?  Would there be enough scientists?  These doubts plagued me.  But I decided to give it a whirl.  Encouraging signs emerged quickly.  The creature was indeed radioactive and there was a whole passel of scientists assigned to this movie.  One of them even had a New England accent so things seemed to check out.  And reassuringly the US military was available for monster eradication duty once the scientists had done the heavy lifting of analysis.  Early on a problem arose.  This creature was man shaped.  He was bald and had strange hands with hypodermic finger nails.  But he was no more than eight feet tall.  This was highly irregular and seemed to throw into doubt his qualifications for his own movie.  Also the scientists in this movie were extremely assertive and gave the military officers a lot of lip.  And it seemed they didn’t know their primary function, figure out how to kill the monster.  This was very confusing.  The leader of the scientists kept saying that regardless of how many humans the creature killed, science demanded that no force should be used against it.  He kept saying (in a really annoying intonation) that the creature “is wiser than we are” and that “it’s our duty to die to preserve the knowledge this creature possesses.”  Even as a youngster I intuited that this head scientist was what we called back then “a loser.”  How could this be?  He was a scientist!  He had the answers.  I found this very puzzling and dispiriting.  I searched for some reason for this failure on the scientist’s part to want to kill the monster.  Eventually I developed an hypothesis based on a detailed comparison of “Them” and “The Thing from Another World.”  At first glance nothing jumped out.  But once I checked the cast members it all became clear.  As mentioned above, in “Them” the part of the FBI Agent and eventual boyfriend of the scientist’s daughter is played by James Arness of “Gunsmoke” fame.  It turned out that the part of the Thing was played by none other than James Arness!  Well obviously if Arness was the prospective son-in-law of one scientist, then it stood to reason that a fellow scientist would not turn on him.  What was at work here was the kind of professional courtesy that, for instance, police confer on each other’s family members.  Now it made perfect sense.  Crisis averted.  I could become a scientist without becoming a loser.  But I was troubled by all that talk of monsters being wiser than us.  And not killing them but instead letting them kill us.  It was very strange.

Fast forward forty years.  I work as an engineer.  I am surrounded by R&D PhDs.  They all look and sound like the head scientist in “The Thing from Another World.”  They drive Priuses and have Tolerance and Coexist, Bernie and Free Tibet bumper stickers on their cars.  And suddenly it all makes sense.

Scientists Real and Imagined – Part 2