Thursday, May 30, 2013

I was robbed

I was robbed a little more than a week ago. The burglar(s) tore off a screen, came in through an unlocked window, made a mess, tossed our laptops in a backpack, and took off. No one was hurt, including Halloween, because no one was home. I came home by myself about half an hour after dark. It's likely that the burglar left only a few minutes before I arrived, based on talks with our neighbors and the likelihood that it happened after sunset. Emily and I had a rough few days after that. We felt insecure at home, insecure when we left home, and, since we (mostly me) are addicted to our laptops, at loose ends.

The most meaningful casualty of the robbery was, of course, this blog. I haven't posted since it happened (to be honest, since about a week before. A bad omen?). Time to get back on track.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A few more thoughts on Oblivion (and Homeland, too)

Oblivion reminds me of Homeland. Jack Harper is a lot like Nick Brody, the marine held captive for several years during the Iraq War before being freed. Each man is captured by his enemy. Each man is shown kindness by the leader of his enemies, whom eventually becomes his trusted adviser and/or guide. Each man become a suicide bomber (though, ultimately, Brody decides to abandon his plan). Oblivion and Homeland both strive to create characters whom an audience will empathize and sympathize with. Both face the challenge of making a terrorist sympathetic to their audiences. The two stories do this is slightly different ways. 

First, consider Nick Brody. Homeland humanizes him and, at least by the end of season 1, empathize with him. The show achieves this, even as Brody seems committed to terrorism against America, by divorcing Brody's motivations from the ideological. Brody never self-identifies as a terrorist. He becomes a bomber to kill one man (not incidentally, the Vice President of the United States) who orchestrated the drone strike which killed Brody's sort-of-adoptive son* (not coincidentally, the son of Abu Nasir, terrorist mastermind). Killing the VP has political implications, obviously, but manipulating politics isn't Brody's goal--this opens the door for us to understand and sympathize with him, and helps us categorize him as something other than "terrorist". If he were at all motivated by ideology, instead of revenge, it seems unlikely than American audiences could stomach his character--if he we committed to destroying America, Americans would have a hard time empathizing with him.

Now consider Jack Harper. Jack's motivations are entirely political by the end of the film: he wants the occupying aliens to leave Earth. The best way to do this, in his estimation, is to pilot a spaceship carrying a nuclear bomb into an alien control center. The goal is totally ideological. In fact, this final, ideological goal is at odds with Harper's goal for the rest of the film, which is to be reunited with his former wife. By killing himself, he makes that impossible, obviously**.

What allows Oblivion's protagonist to be a sympathetic suicide bomber is its remove from reality. The film's world, in 2077, is sufficiently different from our own, and Jack Harper's cause is sufficiently well motivated, that an (American) audience never parses him as a terrorist. Jack Harper is one of the good guys. He does what he needs to do to promote the good guy cause. And he's played by Tom Cruise. For all that Tom Cruise is, he's no terrorist. This is why the movie can tell its story. It's what makes the movie watchable.

But what makes the movie valuable, beyond its visuals, is its commitment to showing how its protagonist is radicalized and decides to become a martyr in a context not (totally) unlike our modern world. Oblivion shows us a character who chooses to kill himself for a political cause, using the methods of modern terrorism.

Why is this valuable? If a legitimate goal of art is to create characters and make us understand who they are, both Oblivion and Homeland have tried, in some small way, to help us understand our (America's) enemies. Both the film and the TV series chicken out from providing us with true enemies of America to grapple with--Oblivion is set in another, post-national time, and Homeland's bomber denies terrorist ideology. But, because both of them went halfway there, we might be able to imagine the rest.

*The tragedy--the death of a young boy in an U.S. drone strike--is incredibly simple to understand. The U.S. has done something wrong--they've bombed a school in the hope that Abu Nasir will be there. He isn't, and the bomb kills dozens of children. The scenario has so little nuance that it feels manipulative.

**The movie is clever about this bit by having a final scene of reconciliation between a clone of Jack Harper (not our hero, the martyr) and his wife. A bit of manipulation to make us feel better about his suicide.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

I came home last Sunday to find...

this note on my welcome mat. From one of the little girls who lives next door.

Monday, May 6, 2013

So, I'm allergic to my cat

I'm allergic to this cute little guy (but not allergic to asparagus, thank goodness).

Having an allergy has been, so far, a lot worse than a normal sickness. It's not so much the symptoms, though the symptoms (which, for me, involve a lot of lower respiratory trouble) are worse. It's the idea that my environment--specifically, my home--makes me sick.

I am also allergic to mold. I know this because I slept in a car with moldy food in it and suffered the same symptoms I now suffer from the cat. At the time I experienced those symptoms, I felt scared and disoriented. I didn't know why I felt so bad. It took several nights of chest pain and labored breath (while sleeping in the car) and several days of relatively easy breathing with no pain (while out of the car) for me to connect the dots, search through the stuff in my car, discover the mold, and remove it from my environment. Once the mold was removed, all my symptoms disappeared. The Mold Saga wasn't a lot of fun, but it was pretty simple: I felt sick, recognized my environment was toxic, removed the toxin, and felt better.

This is why the cat allergy is so much worse. I want to keep the cat. This means that the third step in the above progression--remove the toxin--isn't so easy. I never had much of an emotional attachment to the mold I removed from my car, but I'm attached to Halloween.

Since learning I'm allergic to the cat I've started taking an anti-histamine and limiting my exposure to him while at home. So far, it's been ok--I've felt a lot better. But I'm not sure it's sustainable. A home is a place to feel safe, secure, and relaxed. If I worry about interacting with the cat too much while at home, or worry about being home at all, home stops being a place of relaxation. And if I still experience symptoms, even while minding my relationship to the cat, my home isn't really safe, either. In that case, the house would just be some place that makes me anxious and sick.

I don't want to give up the cat, and I don't want to jeopardize my health. So far, I've resisted the fact that those two things may be mutually exclusive.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Books I read in April

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters. I'm not sure where it's coming from, but I have the feeling that if I were better read, I wouldn't have liked this book so much. Maybe it's because, after reading Rahul Kanakia's review for Strange Horizons, I get the sense that Kanakia's unhappiness with the structure and atmosphere of the book stems more from how widely read he is in the pre-apocalyptic asteroid and/or police procedural genres. Luckily for me, I'm not well read. It's got a nice story, a nice setting, a nice tone, and enough lightness to avoid collapsing into something horribly depressing. The central character's relentless enthusiasm for his work helps the novel keep its shape, too.

The premise is this: in sixth months, an asteroid will hit Earth and likely end human life. Detective Hank Palace finds a hanger (a death by hanging, and a likely suicide) that doesn't sit right with him. For some reason, he thinks it's a murder. And off we go.

Part of what I liked about the book is how readable it is, while at the same time not throwing away its sentences. A few months ago, I read The Black Box, the Michael Connelly police prodecural mystery novel. That's a very readable novel because only every tenth sentence is important to read. Not so with The Last Policeman, which is super readable because its sentences are so well constructed. A sequel to this novel comes out in July. I'm looking forward to it.

About Writing by Samuel R. Delany. Wow. What a book. Samuel R. Delany is so obviously smart, and has so obvious a mastery of his subject, that useful information oozes out of this book. It would be hard to read it without getting some of that good ooze all over you. That sounds weird. Maybe I should move on from this analogy.

Writing advice is addictive. It's easy to get lost in the internet reading articles about "how to improve your writing" or "how to get an editor's attention." This bad advice is so addictive because: 1) it's related to writing, so you can convince yourself you're working on your writing without actually, you know, writing anything, and; 2) it's so easy to digest. Typical advice is stuff like this:
5 Techniques for Good Craftsmanship
  1. Proceed slowly and take care.
  2. To ensure that you proceed slowly, write by hand.
  3. Write slowly and by hand only about subjects that interest you.
  4. Develop craftsmanship through years of wide reading.
  5. Rewrite and edit until you achieve the most felicitous phrase/sentence/paragraph/page/story/chapter.
Sounds great, right? The only problem is it's vague, and writer-specific. Using the advice is hard, because there's so little actual advice there to take. It's just cliche and preference.

Here's a passage from About Writing:
Any two facts clustered around a single pronoun begin to generate a character in the reader's mind: "She was sixteen years old, and already five-foot eleven." Though only a ghost, she is already more or less vivid depending on the reader's experience. As soon as we get ready to add a third fact, however, we encounter the problem of psychological veracity. All subsequent information about our character (let's call her Sam) has to be more of less congruent with what already exists in the gap between these two facts.
This is so clear, and so useful. The point is so clearly made that it seems obvious once you've read it, but this is non-trivial information to an unpracticed writer like me. The theoretical jargon ("the problem of psychological veracity") is rooted to a specific writerly problem: that of making a character seem real with words. I can apply this knowledge: I have a character who is x and y; can she also be z? Only maybe.

Delany's practical advice is well grounded in theory, and he explains clearly what to do, if not always how to do it. That's another strength of Delany's book: he acknowledges that there's not always a "how to" in fiction. Some things the artist can only figure out for herself. Delany emphasizes again and again how difficult it is to succeed as a writer. The reminder is included, like most else in the book, because it's true and useful.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013


[Note: If you don't want Oblivion spoiled, you probably shouldn't read this. However: knowing the movie's plot beforehand probably won't diminish the experience of seeing the movie--it might enhance it, really, because you won't have to wonder what the hell is going on the whole way through.]

It's something of a spoiler to call Oblivion post-colonial sci-fi. We don't learn until the last 30 minutes of the film that aliens (or maybe an AI?) have colonized and almost completely depopulated Earth. The last dregs of humanity cling tenuously to life below the planet's surface. The movie's narrative twists and turns and strains credulity, but the setting can be easily understood: a powerful space-faring society has taken control of Earth for its resources, driven a small resistance force of humans underground, and turned the surface of the planet to desert.

Almost nothing in Oblivion is new. The post-colonial setting I described has been explored in science fiction over and over again. The plot points and the images the film employs have often been yanked whole from other, better movies*. Jack Harper, played by Tom Cruise, is a lot like Wall-E--though less lifelike. Yet, hidden in the pastiche, there's something unsettling about Oblivion. Here it is: Oblivion is a movie about how Jack Harper becomes a suicide bomber.

"Terrorist" is a difficult word, but its the best one I have to describe Jack Harper, who employs the tactics of modern terrorism. At the end of the film, Harper pilots a vessel into a strategic location and detonates a nuclear bomb, martyring himself in the hope of shocking the aliens into leaving--in other words, martyring himself to achieve a political objective.  The specifics of the scenario hit pretty close to home, too: a great military power wages a drone campaign against a technologically inferior enemy, which spawns a resistance. The big difference between Oblivion and America in 2013 is, in Oblivion, the good guys are the terrorists, and the bad guys have the drones. Is Oblivion a criticism of U.S. foreign policy? Of drone strikes? Is it a pre-emptive criticism of the police state the world might become?

I'm not so sure the film wants to be any of those things. This is a summer blockbuster, after all. But at its heart, Oblivion is a story about a martyr. It's a story about how people become martyrs and, if they're good guys, why martyrs are heroes.

*Oblivion's drones quite resemble machines from The Matrix; the film's use of cloning was stolen from Moon; Tom Cruise's pastoral getaway on Earth reminds strongly of the pre-mission setting in Solaris; rebel heroes wear black, villains wear white, a la Star Wars; the movie's climax is taken from "Battlestar Galactica," or, more likely, the climax of Independence Day, or, still more likely, the destruction of the Death Star; etc, etc, etc.