Oscars Recap

So, I did manage to watch the oscars last night. Like most television I watch, I recorded it on my PVR for later viewing. I have a few reasons for this. First, my schedule generally doesn’t match the broadcasters. Being chained to a particular broadcast schedule really doesn’t work that well for me. Secondly, I like being able to skip through commercials. This is perhaps an idea to follow up on a different blog post, but television commercials tend to be more obnoxious than informative over the past several years.

Back to the Oscars. I was pleased to see separate musical performances again. The musical medley experimentation from the last Academy Awards really missed the mark, in my opinion. It was nice to see those associated with these works get extra recognition. This also definitively answered a question for me: Zachary Levi did indeed perform his own singing in Tangled.

The opening segment for the Oscars was a great tribute to a number of nominated movies, and I thought the Inception frame was quite fitting. It was nice to see Inception win the technical awards.

The hosting duties were adequate. Anne Hathaway brought some enthusiasm, but I think James Franco was a bit flat. This doesn’t really come as too much of a surprise, as that is their public personas. Both performed far better as Academy Awards hosts than the recent Golden Globes host.

I was particularly impressed with the appearance of Kirk Douglas, who presented the Best Supporting Actress award. It was really heartwarming to see this great actor, at 94 up on the screen. He did a great job, and it was quite amusing to see his comedic timing as he kept delaying the announcement of the award. Kirk Douglas was the lead actor, as well as producer for the film Spartacus, played an important role in challenging the Hollywood Blacklist by crediting Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten for writing the screenplay. While many

On the theme of censorship, when Melissa Leo gave her acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress in The Fighter, she uttered one of George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words. While this was apparently bleeped out in some broadcasts, they must have missed it on the channel I was watching. When Leo’s co-star Christian Bale later won Best Supporting Actor, he alluded to his own outburst on the set of “Terminator: Salvation”.

To no great surprise, Toy Story 3 won for Best Animated Film.

In science fiction news, Shaun Tan won Best Short Film (Animated) for The Lost Thing. Tan had previously won the Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist in 2010, and the World Fantasy Award for Best Artist in 2007.

The big awards were won by The King’s Speech, which from the clips shown throughout the show, looks to be quite intriguing. I’m generally interested in character-based movies, and I was hoping this film would win out over The Social Network, although I haven’t yet seen either.

Not The Oscars: Despicable Me

Since it’s Oscar night, I thought I’d post about movies. However, since I’ve not really seen most of the movies, and since I’m watching the Oscars time-shifted on my PVR, I can’t really offer much of interest there.

This past week, I finally got a chance to watch Despicable Me. I’ll admit that I’m not generally a Steve Carell fan. I’m not sure what aspect of his personality normally irritates me, but it wasn’t in evidence in this film. This was a comedic gem.

Gru is a great villain character, if a bit inept. Many of his crimes are rather… minimal. Stealing the Jumbotron from Times Square? Stealing the Statue of Liberty, and the Eiffel Tower… replicas from Las Vegas?

I think the most compelling crime isn’t the moon heist, or even any of the shrink-ray heists. The most meaningful act of mischief is when we first meet Gru, and he encounters a small boy crying over his spilt ice cream. Gru takes great delight in making a balloon animal, giving it to the overjoyed little boy, before crushing his hopes and dreams by popping it in his face. This petulant act reveals quickly what kind of person Gru is, and more poignantly, gives us insight into his character.

The movie later reveals that Gru’s childhood is a series of disappointed incidents where his dreams are slowly crushed. This story then becomes one of redemption for Gru’s lost childhood. For Gru, this is what his time with the three orphans, Margo, Edith and Agnes comes to mean. It’s a reawakening of his childhood. When Gru’s dreams appear all but crushed, it is the innocence of the children, their giving nature, that gives him the desire to fight on.

Making Payment Convenient

Back in 2007, Tim Hortons announced a deal with MasterCard, to finally provide a credit-card payment system across their stores in Canada. One of the key benefits of this payment was the use of the new PayPass system, a contactless method of transferring credit card information without having to sign receipts. They claimed this would avoid the PIN entry of debit, and ensure fast service through the drive through lineups.

Tim hortons takeout cup

At the same time, for those who did not have a MasterCard with PayPass, they would also swipe credit cards, and signed receipts would not be required for small amounts. Again, this was intended to ensure speedy service.

In 2010, Tim Hortons announced that debit cards would also be accepted for payment across Canada. In their press release, they ensured customers that the speed of service would be maintained, after a trail period in some of the Western provinces since 2003.

How convenient are these methods of payment? From my experience, the PayPass option had the most potential, but was also the most flawed. The position of the PayPass receivers at drive throughs are located beneath the drive through window, recessed to avoid collisions with vehicles. This is probably the worst place they could have placed it.

From my car, a low vehicle, I’m having to reach down to access the terminal. From larger vehicles, I’m reaching down to access the payment window, and the PayPass terminal is completely out of reach. Furthermore, when I can reach the terminal, staff at the store actively discourage its use, with some variation of “Oh, that’s not working.” When I point out the poor location, I’m told that the location is mandated by Chase, the bank which provides the service.

Tim hortons standard store

There are a few places which would be more convenient for these PayPass terminals, such as to the side of the payment window, or even inside the payment window. This is presumably the level at which most customers are expected to reach.

Since Tim Hortons started accepting Interac Debit, changes have also occurred in their handling of credit cards. Any MasterCard with a chip now requires a PIN entry, once again reducing the convenience, especially when considered with their discouragement of PayPass payments.

While I’m using Tim Hortons as an example here, other retailers are also making credit payments more difficult. While sometimes, this is likely due to merchant rules changes at the major credit companies, but I wonder if part of these changes are to subtly discourage payments which incur a transaction fee.

(Images provided by Tim Hortons’ press kit page)

Review: Finch by Jeff VanderMeer

While I’ve read plenty of books with Jeff VanderMeer’s name on the cover, it’s generally been preceded by “edited by” rather than “written by”. As such, Finch is the first Ambergris novel I’ve read. It’s a very atmospheric novel, with a great deal of style. The city of Ambergris seems quite alive, just as China Miéville’s Bas-Lag is a rotting corpse of a city.

It’s a gritty detective noir story, and the fungal atmosphere really works. While there is obviously backstory with some of VanderMeer’s other Ambergris novels, each takes place at a different point in the city’s history, which means that the previous stories are alluded to, rather than requiring knowledge. It works rather well for those coming to his fiction for the first time.

VanderMeer seems at home with the mystery genre, and the plotting makes sense once the story is done. The further I got into this book, the harder it was to set down, as if fungal spores had grafted themselves from the book into my hands. The plot tension of the novel ramped up, and VanderMeer’s narrative kept pace.

VanderMeer plays with the liminal. The occupying forces are fungal creatures, not truly plant, nor animal. John Finch is a detective, but working for the occupying forces. Blending things even further are the Partials: human-spore hybrids, accepting greater power in the occupation, but equally feared by everyone. While there’s a strong sense of independence and rebelliousness in the human detectives like Finch, the Partials strongly evoke the feel of collaborators in the war-time occupations in Earth history.

Finch is a very stylistic novel, with a near perfect mix of plot and characterization. It raises issues of colonization and living in an occupied state, something which resonates strongly in many areas of the world today. A very enjoyable read.

I Grew Up on Trashy Fantasy Novels

While I often write about science fiction, I actually grew up on trashy fantasy novels. Well, maybe not quite trashy. Certainly formulaic. More than one Dragonlance novel imparted a subtle grace to my bookshelves as I grew up. Seemingly the very definition of stereotypical characters, written as part of the TSR Dragonlance roleplaying game. This is certainly not to impugn the writing of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. The character of Raistlin for example, provides an interesting look at the balance of morality. Long after I stopped reading the tales of Raistlin and Caramon, I’ve continued to read other series by these two.

The Rose of the Prophet trilogy was particularly memorable, and took a somewhat more nuanced approach to morality and religion, showing the power of the gods as different aspects of an integrated whole, and the quest to regain balance.

The Darksword trilogy took a different look at magic and technology, again with elements of self-sacrifice. This series was memorable for me as being my introduction to the idea of a city inside a bubble.

One of the most important novels I believe either author has written is actually Tracy Hickman’s novel The Immortals, which examines quarantine death camps for those inflicted with AIDS. This novel is actually science fiction, not fantasy, but the message it contains is a powerful message against hatred and brutality.

Other series I read growing up included Anne McCaffery’s Pern novels. In grade 6, we actually studied the Harper Hall trilogy in class, which was the first time I studied a book for class which I had already read.

I was also a fan of Raymond E. Feist’s Magician series. The Magician: Apprentice and Magician Master, as well as the Empire trilogy cowritten with Janny Wurts are still among my favourites.

David Eddings’ Belgariad was fun, although again it tended to oversimplify some things. The whole “this country is a jungle, that one is a swamp” thing sort of seemed a little like the Ice Plant Hoth, the Desert Planet Tatooine after awhile. Definitely an epic fantasy.

Among the more recent fantasy series have been those which more closely follow historical periods. Guy Gavriel Kay’s works are great. Tigana is a great novel about the importance of memory. His most recent novel, Under Heaven, is a great story influenced by Chinese history.

I certainly can’t fail to mention Jack Whyte, who has written one of the most interesting tales in the Arthurian legend, covering the span of time before Arthur is crowned king. Whyte’s novels are told mostly from the viewpoint of Merlyn, but in a way which completely avoids the use of magic, in a much more realist setting.

Review: The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is best known for his Mars trilogy: Red Mars (1993), Green Mars (1994), and Blue Mars (1995) chart the future trajectory of a martian colony, and the terraforming project that remaps the surface. It’s a complicated trilogy, with a strong focus on issues of political governance and technological development. More recently, Robinson has published his Science in the Capital series, with Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007), which explores issues of politics and climate change.

One of Robinson’s more interesting works however, is The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), an alternate history novel where the Black Plague wipes out European civilization, charting the progress of a world dominated by Muslim, Buddhist, Daoist, Confuscianist and Hindu culture and philosophies. It’s a long novel, spanning almost 800 pages. This book is composed of several smaller narratives, linked together by the reincarnation of the different characters, charting the time between 1405 CE to 2002 CE. I didn’t find that the individual narratives linked together strongly enough, the piece as a whole felt rather disjointed.

Where Robinson’s story excels is in the imagining of the development of this world. With the void left by European Christianity, a different form of colonialism takes place. North America is actually colonized from the west coast, by Chinese explorers.

While I appreciate Robinson’s vision, the end result of his alternate history is still uncomfortably similar to our history today: “Things were better but not in any rapid marked way. Different but in some ways the same. People still fought, corruption infected the new institutions, it was always a struggle. Everything took much longer than anyone had anticipated, and every few years everything was also somehow entirely different. The pulse of history’s long duration was much slower than an individual’s time” (724). The later sections of the book tend to loop back, becoming ever more philosophical in nature.

Where The Years of Salt and Rice excels is in telling the individual stories which convey the different vector in which history takes. I found the Mars trilogy to focus too much on the long view of history, especially when genetic engineering dramatically lengthens human lifespans. By focusing on much shorter sections of the intimate lives of characters, this novel provides not only the overall trajectory of the story, but also the specific details that bring the world to life. However, as others, such as Jo Walton have pointed out, this devolves towards the end of the novel. It’s a story with a great premise, but the narrative breaks down in the end.

Sadly, the sudden change in political climate post-9/11 limited the initial reception of the text. A novel in which Christianity is all but wiped out in the 14th century, and in which Muslims compete with the Chinese as the two major world superpowers would be seen as offensive in the sudden xenophobia that washed over North America in the wake of the September 11th attacks. While The Years of Rice and Salt won the Locus Award in 2003, the Hugo Award for Best Novel went to Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids. While I can’t quite argue with this, as I believe that Sawyer’s more personal narrative structure was more effective, I think that far fewer people ended up reading Robinson’s novel than it deserved.

The Fiction of Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer published his first novel in 1990, but his first SF publication was a short story called If I’m Here, Imagine Where They Sent My Luggage, in 1981.

I don’t remember when I first started reading Sawyer’s fiction, but I do remember his time as the Edna Staebler Writer In Residence at the Kitchener Public Library, in 2006. During his first appearance, I also met Paddy Forde, Suzanne Church and James Alan Gardner, all local authors in Waterloo Region.

Rob is often one to talk of how perseverance is one of the great assets of a writer. The ability to keep cranking out the words, and the stories, day after day, is one of the signs of a writer. His addition to Heinlein’s rules of writing is simple: keep writing.

Clearly another important part of Rob’s success is his great skill as a communicator. Not only does his writing express a sense of clarity, but his interaction in person is phenomenal. He has a strong, projecting voice, which is great for public readings. His degree from Ryerson is in Radio and Television Arts, where he specialized in screenwriting, which doubtless helped him land so many guest appearances on television. He also had the opportunity to write the screenplay for one of the episodes of the ABC Flash Forward adaptation of his novel.

When talking with Rob at conventions, he shows an earnest interest in what others think, even when it’s some mindless fan (namely myself) uttering a spontaneous, unplanned question at a reading, with no real relevance to the story at hand. Rob is quick to deflate the question with a simple but humourous response, and then follow up later. For those wanting to know: “The reason in WATCH that the CSIS agents flew from Ottawa to Toronto then drove to Waterloo is that the first flight from Ottawa to Toronto arrives at 7:00 a.m.; the first flight from Ottawa to Waterloo arrives at 8:30 p.m. — and the Toronto airport is less than 75 minutes from Caitlin’s school, so you get there earlier by doing it the way I described in the novel.”

Rob’s fiction is based on important, contemporary issues, often dealing with morality. Whether it’s the rights of the consciousness transferred into an android body in Mindscan, or that of a nascent AI in Rob’s latest Wake, Watch, Wonder trilogy, Rob raises ethical issues which arise due to advances in modern technology.

It’s quite appropriate when Rob is held up as the answer to the techno-thriller. Often in American SF, technology is shown as being inherently chaotic. Cloned dinosaurs escape, robots travel from the future to kill a boy who would grow into mankind’s greatest leader, etc. Instead, Sawyer brings us aliens who say “take me to your paleontologist”, exploring issues of faith and morality in a compelling and respectful way.

Some of his greatest short stories, such as Shoulders of Giants, do not contain an antagonist at all, but are instead testaments to the pioneering spirit. Others, such as Just Like Old Times, examine a Canada where state-sponsored euthanasia transfers the consciousness of convicted felons into people (and dinosaurs) from the past.

Rob’s stories are designed to provoke thought, to question beliefs, and to raise awareness of the role science plays in modern society. Keep up the good work.