Rogue vs. Rogue (vs. Rogue vs. Rogue)

Life’s tough out there for a back-stabbing, cup-poisoning assassin.

Image by Erik Jensen

In Making Stuff occasional feature, we share fun arts and crafts done by us and our fellow geeks and nerds.

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Call for Help: Where Is Miss Sherlock?

I saw Bay Alden tweet-share a trailer for a gender-swapped version of Sherlock Holmes set in modern Japan. It looks fascinating, so I had to dig up more. Here are the trailers I found:

MISS SHERLOCK Official Promo Trailer (HD) HBO Asia Original Series via JoBlo TV Show Trailers

MISS SHERLOCK – Japanese TV Series Trailer #2 via Seven on YouTube

MISS SHERLOCK – Japanese TV Series Trailer #3 (Official Trailer from HBO Asia) via Seven on YouTube

The show is co-produced by HBO Asia and Hulu Japan. The official description reads:

“MISS SHERLOCK pays homage to the classic by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, with bold interpretations of the iconic characters, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. MISS SHERLOCK is set in modern day Tokyo and both lead characters are Japanese women – Dr. Wato Tachibana, a surgeon recently returned from a volunteer doctors’ mission in Syria and Sara Shelly Futaba, an investigation consultant to the police department who solves bizarre and difficult cases. Throughout the series, the pair solves mystery after mystery with Miss Sherlock’s extraordinary observation and reasoning skills.”

Miss Sherlock premiers on April 27, 2018.

Now for the part that I need help with. Does anyone know whether Miss Sherlock is available outside Japan? If so, are English subtitles available? I did find a mention (repeated elsewhere) that it can be viewed in the U.S. only via the HBO Go streaming app, but I haven’t found a confirmation by HBO or Hulu.

Anyone?

This post has been edited to correct a typo.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

A Science-Fictional Personal Transportation Drone Is Almost a Reality

On Twitter, CNET shared a video of test flight footage of an apparently functional, autonomous passenger drone. Take a look at it here:

The model is called Ehang 184. There’s a longer test flight video on EHANG’s YouTube channel:

EHANG 184 AAV Manned Flight Tests by EHANG on YouTube

There’s been some buzz—quite understandably, too, for the drone looks pretty neat—but the vehicle doesn’t seem to have been ready for the international market quite as soon as some western news outlets have reported. It sounds like the battery life is still rather limited, too. Fortunately the limitations of the current tech do not have to restrain a science fiction writer—just think of how much cell phone batteries have improved in the last ten years alone.

My goodness, it’s exciting to be living now! 🙂

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Historiography (With Comics)

I encourage anyone who wants to write SFF to read history, and to go beyond popular history to good scholarly history. Historical scholarship has its challenges for non-specialists, though, first among them: historiography.

It’s a rather intimidating word. The bane of history majors everywhere and a source of confusion to ordinary folks who pick up an academic history book trying to learn a little more about people and places in the past. It doesn’t have to be so intimidating, though. Historiography just means the ways in which we explain history.

There are many different theories of history with bewildering and unhelpful names: Marxism (which is not the same as Marxist economic theory), the Annales school, Whig history (which has nothing to do with wigs), and many more. Each of these theories encompasses a different set of questions that historians ask about the past, a different way of organizing evidence, and a different approach to interpreting cause and effect. At the most basic level, though, they are all just different ways of explaining change.

The study of change is, fundamentally, what the study of history is about. The past was not the same as the present. People lived in different ways, they held different beliefs about the world and made different decisions. When you take all of the individual choices that individual people made while going about the business of their daily lives and add them all together, the result is large-scale changes over time.

Different historical theories see that change differently. While every school of historical thought has its own specific approaches, some of the basic differences can be summed as the difference between seeing history as a pendulum, a circle, or a line.

Pendulum

Pendulum theories are based on the idea that most societies most of the time are basically static. People get up, go to work, come home, go to bed, and not much changes from one day, year, or generation to the next. Occasionally something will happen that upsets that equilibrium, like an outbreak of deadly disease or the introduction of a new crop, and it takes time for people to adjust to the new circumstances. Eventually, though, things settle down and people get back to the business of getting up, going to work, coming home, and going to bed. The population recovers as survivors acquire immunity to the disease or markets catch up as farmers start growing the new crop instead of some old ones.

From this point of view, the thing that’s important to study is the resting state of the pendulum, the condition that everything will tend back towards when its not being knocked about. We study history in order to understand basic things about human nature and society. The things that bump the pendulum are less important than where it will eventually come back to.

Circle

Circle theories believe that rather than one natural state to which societies return, there is a cycle that societies repeatedly go through. Each generation is shaped by the circumstances it grew up in and makes different choices than the generation that came before, but eventually things come back around again. A generation of spendthrifts, for instance, leaves its children in debt. When those children grow up, they tend to pinch their pennies. Their children grow up free from the fear of privation and more willing to take risks. Some of them get rich and raise children who grow up spoiled and irresponsible with money, which starts the cycle again.

To historians of this persuasion, the study of history is not about identifying a basic state we will return to but recognizing where we are in the cycle so we can better prepare for what comes next.

Line

Line theories believe that history is going somewhere and it won’t turn back. Small changes accumulate over time. Every choice that people make creates a new set of circumstances that future people have to respond to, and things will never go back to the way they were before. From this point of view, changes in society whether small, like a new drink becoming popular, or big, like industrial production taking over from individual crafting, has consequences that roll forward and are impossible to ever entirely undo. The demand for tea in England, for instance, created new incentives for trade, which led to new imperialist policies in Asia, which destroyed some local governments and elevated others, and so on. Even if Brits someday stop drinking tea, none of these effects will be undone.

Some line historians see the line pointing towards progress and an ultimate good for all humanity; others see it pointing towards degeneration and the collapse of the human race. Others simply see it as a process of ongoing and inevitable change. The point of studying history for all of them, though, is that we can make better choices for the future by understanding how we got to the present. The past is never going to come around again, but if we can tell which way the wind is blowing, we know which way to spit.

If this still seems a bit too theoretical, here’s an example in practice. How would historians of these different persuasions approach a particular historical event? Let’s take, say, the American Revolution.

To a pendulum historian, not much really changed because of the revolution. After several years of fighting that killed many people and interfered with daily life, Anglo-American men replaced one distant aristocracy with a slightly closer one who only inherited land and wealth, not land, wealth, and titles. For many colonial denizens, the revolution simply changed who they paid their taxes to and which politicians they grumbled about over their beer after coming in from the fields or workshops at the end of the day. For women, poor folks, enslaved Africans, indigenous peoples, and anyone else outside the landowning elite, hardly anything was different in the years after the war compared with the years before it.

To a circle historian, the revolution was an example of an ongoing pattern in which the inability to reconcile political differences leads to violence. Stresses had been building up over time as the British government had different needs and priorities than the American colonists. Eventually these stresses reached a breaking point where negotiation and accommodation failed. The only way forward was turn to violent revolt. This pattern had played out before in English history going back at least as far as the Magna Carta and would continue to play out in American history, leading to the Civil War and to unrest in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The same cycle of stress, failed attempts at reconciliation, and violent upheaval has occurred all across the world in societies large and small

To a line historian, the revolution was a turning point which changed everything that came after. There are many different ways of understanding that change. One historian might call it the beginning of American exceptionalism while another might see it as a step in the disintegration of European empires in the western hemisphere. Another historian might see it as cutting off American law from the progress Britain was making toward ending slavery, or changing the focus of American trade towards the Pacific Ocean rather than the Atlantic. Whatever the focus, the war created a new set of circumstances that led people to behave in new ways.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. Not all histories fall neatly into one of these categories, but these basic ideas are at the core of many. Understanding what kind of history you’re reading can help you get what you want out of it, and knowing what kind of histories are out there can help you find the one you’re looking for. Happy history reading!

Comics by Erik Jensen

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Fahrenheit 451 Reboot Trailer

The rebooted Fahrenheit 451 trailer is out:

Fahrenheit 451 (2018) Official Trailer ft. Michael B. Jordan & Michael Shannon | HBO on YouTube

This new movie adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel is by writer, director, and producer Ramin Bahrani. The flick stars Michael B. Jordan (lately appearing e.g. in Black Panther and Fantastic Four) and Michael Shannon (e.g. The Shape of Water, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Man of Steel). It’s set to come out May 19, 2018.

My first snarky comment solely on the basis of the trailer is “Do you think this movie has something to do with fire?” and the second “My goodness, so many men doing man things—where are the women?” Then again, I know that trailers always lie, and that may be the case here. According to IMDB, at least, the cast does have a number of women, including Sofia Boutella, whom I remember from Kingsman: The Secret Service. It remains to be seen how much of a role they’re given. And I hope Michael B. Jordan is given space to show his depth.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Quotes: Humans as the Only Generators of Value and Purpose in the World

Author Kelly Robson describes the core conceit of her novel Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach in an interview with Ilana C. Myer:

“The habs, hives, and hells [i.e., city state -like population centers] compete for economic power, and economic power ultimately comes from populations. A free market requires free movement of population, so everyone is free to basically vote with their feet. If they don’t like the quality of life in the hab, hive, or hell they live in, they are free to move to a different one. A hab, hive, or hell with a shrinking population knows that it better change its quality of life offerings if it wants to stop hemorrhaging people.

“It’s a dynamic world that ultimately respects humans as the only generators of value and purpose in the world. I like it.”

– Kelly Robson describing her novel Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach

Aah, I like it too. 🙂 Plus, voting with your feet is a natural extension of voting with your wallet.

Myer, Ilana C. “Kelly Robson on the Economics of Time Travel in Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach.” Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, April 02, 2018.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

The Rules of (Ancient) Magic

Not too long ago I was perusing a post by the fantasy author N. K. Jemisin about magic in fantasy. (The post is from several years back, but it only came to my attention recently—it’s well worth reading both the post and the comments after, if you’re interested in fantasy writing.) Jemisin takes issue with contemporary writers who obsess over rules and systems for magic rather than letting magic be the strange, unpredictable, sometimes frightening force that it often was in older fantasy by authors like Tolkien and Le Guin.

Naturally, being a historian of the ancient Mediterranean by training and a fantasy fan and author by inclination, it got me thinking about how magic is used in ancient Greek and Roman literature. The first problem is how to define magic. Lots of strange things happen in classical myths, but most of those are the action of gods, to whom turning people into peacocks or birthing fully-armed daughters out of their heads comes naturally. Ancient societies also widely believed that humans had the ability to invoke the gods to take action on their behalf through rituals including offerings, prayers, curses, and dances. I’m taking a more limited definition of magic, however: supernatural powers and events produced directly by humans at their will without requiring the aid and participation of gods or other superhuman entities. Using this definition, magic is actually quite rare in ancient literature, but here are a few examples.

In the Odyssey by Homer, the witch Circe uses enchanted food and a magic wand to transform Odysseus’ crew into animals. The god Hermes points Odysseus to a special herb which protects him from Circe’s magic as long as he is holding it, which allows him to overcome Circe and force her to restore his crew. (As a side note, this part of the epic may ultimately derive from Babylonian myths about the god Marduk, who held a sweet-smelling herb to protect himself from the poisonous blood of the dragon Tiamat and her monstrous children.)

In Euripides’ drama Medea, the sorceress Medea, abandoned by her husband Jason, sends a poisoned robe and crown to Jason’s new bride, Glauce. When Glauce dons the poisoned gifts, they cling to her body and burn her to death.

In Apuleius’ novel Metamorphoses (often also called The Golden Ass), the narrator Lucius learns that his friend’s wife dabbles in magic and can transform into a bird by rubbing a magic potion on her body. Lucius wants to try the same and steals some of her potion, but by mistake he gets the wrong one and is turned into a donkey. From the lady’s maid, Photis, he learns that the secret to reversing his transformation is to eat rose petals, but roses are not in season and the rest of the novel follows Lucius the donkey from one misadventure to the next as he tries to find roses to eat.

From these examples, we can notice some patterns about how Green and Roman authors thought about and used magic. On one hand, there is no sign of a magic system, as described by Jemisin. There are no universal rules and no explanation for how or why magic works. Every individual case is different. It depends upon secrets known only to its users, never shared with the audience, and its results often shock and terrify those who encounter them.

At the same time, even though we cannot call this magic systematic, there is a consistency to it. It tends to require special objects or substances, such as enchanted food, magic flowers, poisons, and potions. Those who are initiated into its powers can use them with confidence: Medea knows that her poison will be effective, just as Circe knows she is defeated when she sees Odysseus carrying the plant that makes him immune to her power. When the effects fail or go awry, it is because of ignorance or ineptitude on the part of the wielders, like Lucius using the wrong potion.

Despite this general consistency, the magic remains narratively powerful. It does not become dull and predictable or divert the stories away from the characters’ choices and their consequences. In fact, magic makes possible the human stories that are at the center of these narratives, from Medea’s calamitous vengeance to Lucius’ comic wanderings. How does it achieve these things? A few observations:

The stories include magic; they aren’t about magic. Magic is a MacGuffin. It sets things in motion or presents characters with choices to make, but once the magic has done its job, it disappears into the background and lets the characters get on with things.

Magic does not solve or circumvent the crucial problems. The human issues and choices at the center of these stories are ones that magic cannot touch. Odysseus is trying to get home. He deals with magic and monsters on his way, but it isn’t magic that gets him where he wants to go. Medea’s magic gives her the power to deeply hurt Jason in a way that a mundane woman in her position could not, but the story is about how she makes the choice to use that power. Lucius’ magical mishaps drive him to rethink his unsatisfying life and resolve to be a better person. Magic presents these characters with challenges and choices they wouldn’t otherwise face, but their stories are still about what happens in their hearts and minds.

We know only as much as we need to know. Apuleius does not list the ingredients in Lucius’ donkeyfying draught, nor is there an appendix at the end of the Odyssey to explain how Odysseus’ magical plant disrupted the mystical ether currents that Circe manipulated with her wand. Medea does not take time out from her revenge plot to give the audience a primer on fiery poisons. The magic simply works the way it is supposed to, and that’s all we need to know.

Thoughts for writers

There’s room in fantasy literature for many kinds of magic, from complex and internally consistent systems to strange and unpredictable effects. There’s even a place for fantasy with no magic at all. Whatever kind of fantasy you feel like writing, though, remember this: the story comes first. Whatever you do with your magic, don’t let it get in the way of your characters and the choices they have to make.

Image: Circe flees from Odysseus, with animal-headed crew, detail of photograph via Wikimedia (Metropolitan Museum of Art; c. 440 BCE; red-figure vase; by the Persephone Painter)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

80s Pop Improved by Fight Scene from Thor: Ragnarok

Incredibly, a fight scene from Thor: Ragnarok kind of goes with an 80s pop track:

Thor Ragnarok – I NEED A HERO!!! FUNNY via Locus on YouTube

The song in the background is “Holding out for a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler. Impressive job matching some of the punches on screen to the music.

Then I made the mistake of looking up the original music video. Oh, boy…!

WTF Is This Cat

Found via N. K. Jemisin on Tumblr.

Image: Confused cat via Meme Binge on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

This post has been edited to correct a typo.

Some things are just too silly not to share!

Rating: Doctor Who, Season 6

Our rewatching and rating project carries on with season 6 of new-series Doctor Who. Here’s our ratings for this season’s episodes:

  1. “A Christmas Carol” – 7
  2. “The Impossible Astronaut” – 6
  3. “The Day of the Moon” – 7
  4. “The Curse of the Black Spot” – 4
  5. “The Doctor’s Wife” – 4.5
  6. “The Rebel Flesh” – 4
  7. “The Almost People” – 1.5
  8. “A Good Man Goes to War” – 6.5
  9. “Let’s Kill Hitler” – 6
  10. “Night Terrors” – 2
  11. “The Girl Who Waited” – 2
  12. “The God Complex” – 3.5
  13. “Closing Time” – 4
  14. “The Wedding of River Song” – 3.5

The average episode rating for this season is 4.4, which is a rebound from last season’s 3.7, but still well below the first four seasons.

This season has its good moments. The production team seems to have gotten a better handle on things and most of the episodes feel polished. The actors seem more comfortable in their roles and more willing to stretch their interpretations of the characters. A few episodes deliver new and creative stories. At the same time, a lot of this season feels underwhelming or poorly thought-out.

Our lowest-rated episode for the season, at 1.5, is “The Almost People,” the second part of a grimy industrial-punk story about goop-doppelgangers (goopelgangers?) gone rogue in a future acid-mining operation that for some reason happens in the remains of a medieval monastery. (Someone on the Who team clearly has a thing for goopelgangers: see season 4’s “The Sontaran Strategem” and “The Posion Sky.”) The first part was a bit nonsensical and left a lot of unanswered questions hanging (Why is acid-mining such a big deal in the future? Why use goopelgangers for it? Why are they in a medieval monastery? How did any of this get past health and safety, let alone the heritage council?), but at least it promised the possibility of a good old classic sci-fi “Who’s real?” and “What is the measure of a human?” story. The second part, though, just kind of falls apart and doesn’t pay off. Like last season’s “Flesh and Stone,” and “Cold Blood,” the second half of the story gets sidetracked into serving the season-long arc.

There are brights spots this season, though. Things start off at a strong 7 with an ingenious Christmas episode in which the Doctor finds himself traveling back in time to play Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future and save the soul of a heartless old plutocrat just in time to save a crashing spaceship with his friends Amy and Rory on board. A two-parter follows, “The Impossible Astronaut,” rated 6, and “The Day of the Moon,” another 7, about the Doctor’s friends trying to save the Doctor from being killed by a mysterious figure in a spacesuit and in the process discovering the sinister Silence, who erase themselves from the memory of anyone who sees them. These episodes are a good mix of horror, action, and comedy, and the Silence make interesting counterparts to the Weeping Angels: while the Angels disappear when you look at them, the Silence disappear when you look away.

Although this season has its ups and downs, it also has some larger problems. One is the ongoing obsession with an arc story, which gets significantly more convoluted in this season, sometimes to the detriment of what could have been decent stand-alone stories. New-series Doctor Who has a pretty bad track record when it comes to season-long arcs. Most of them feel obligatory and ratings-driven rather than organic and meaningful. Arc-dependent episodes have consistently been some of the worst, while the best episodes have been those that have nothing to do with the arc. I’d be happy to see Doctor Who stop trying to be Lost and focus on being Doctor Who.

Another problem, which appeared in earlier seasons but gets significantly worse over seasons 5 and 6, is the amount of time and narrative attention given to other characters talking about how great the Doctor is. It was used as a cheap get-out-of-plot-free card at the end of season 3’s “The Last of the Time Lords,” in which a world full of people thinking good thoughts about the Doctor powers the deus ex machina ending, but in season 6 it becomes a recurring theme as ubiquitous as the whooshing of the Tardis. Even River Song, who started off as a fascinating character in her own right, gets reduced to a chorus girl singing the “Oh, Doctor, you’re so amazing” refrain this season. This character shilling goes along with the continuing attitude that special people get a pass on basic human decency to make some scenes really uncomfortable to watch.

How do the rest of you feel about this season? Got any favorites (or anti-favorites) you want to share? We know that not everyone shares our tastes or out perspective on Doctor Who, so let us know in the comments what you loved or didn’t about this season.

Image: Doctor Who season 6 via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Geeky, Feminist Motivational Posters for the International Women’s Day

Due to a post-winterstorm blackout a week more than two weeks ago, I’m still catching up on my Internet reading, so I only saw these awesome, nerdy motivational posters now after the International Women’s Day. It was worth the wait, though:

Tumblr Risa Rodil Poster Shuri Improved
Risa Rodil on Tumblr.

“Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.”

Referring of course to Shuri from the movie Black Panther. As another tinkerer, I wholeheartedly agree! 😀

Tumblr Risa Rodil Poster Successful Woman Herself
Risa Rodil on Tumblr.

“Behind every successful woman is herself.”

The posters are by letterer, illustrator and designerd Risa Rodil. She posted them on Tumblr in honor of the International Women’s Day (March 08).

Visit Risa Tumblr post for more geeky feminist posters. And while there, look at the rest of her work – such a distinct, lively, whimsical style. I especially liked this library poster:

Tumblr Risa Rodil Poster When Doubt Library
Risa Rodil on Tumblr.

“When in doubt, go to the library.”

Find more about Risa on her website, including where to buy her designs.

Crossposted from the Playfully Grownup Home blog (with slight editing).

Images by Risa Rodil via Tumblr: Shuri and successful woman. Library.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.