Second and Last Black Widow Trailer

Under two months to go to the Black Widow movie, and we have a second trailer.

Marvel Studios’ Black Widow | Final Trailer by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

There are a few more clues of the Taskmaster character. He apparently has taken over the Red Room and somehow brainwashed / controlled a number (a class?) of Widows. Nat is shown connecting with her first found family, with some amusingly (and painfully) familiar bickering at the dining table. Since trailers always lie, I’m hesitant to call the writing good on the basis of what we’ve seen so far, but I’m cautiosly optimistic. Just, please, let it not be utter crap (like so many female-lead superhero movies of yore have been).

Otherwise, from the filming or type of action shown, somehow I get a similar wibe as Winter Soldier. As that’s one of my favorite MCU stories, this is a good thing. 🙂 Also, I’ll be glad to see northern European neoclassical cityscapes; it reminds me of home.

Black Widow opens May 01, 2020.

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LightSail 2 Spacecraft Is Successfully Driven by Solar Sails

Have you guys heard of the LightSail project?

The Planetary Society LightSail 2 Australia New Guinea

Run by The Planetary Society (the world’s largest private non-profit space organization), LightSail is a crowdfunded project that successfully launched a solar sail driven spacecraft into Earth orbit in June 2019 in an effort to lower the cost of space exploration.

While not the first spacecraft to successfully use solar sails, LightSail 2 has managed to slow down the deterioration of its orbit and on occasion to reverse drag created by the atmosphere and correct course. Indeed: one of the mission’s functions is doubling as a probe of far-atmospheric thickness.

LightSail 2 deployed its solar sail in July 2019, and has been sending data down to Earth since then. Access the LightSail project page or LightSail 2 mission control for some interesting browsing.

Really cool, isn’t it?

Image: Australia and New Guinea from LightSail 2 by The Planetary Society (CC BY-NC 3.0)

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

The Vivid Colors of the Dome of the Rock

We often picture history in muted terms, at least in the West. We think of the white marble statues of Greece and Rome, the gray stone of medieval castles, the dull brown cloth of historical costumes. It can be hard to remember how much color has been lost to age, weathering, even deliberate destruction. (A few useful examples here and here.) For an alternative view, it helps to look at examples that go far back in history but have been maintained and restored. One good example is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Originally completed in 692 CE, the shrine has continued to be an important Islamic site ever since. Its original design was colorful, and in the following centuries it was elaborated with tiles, mosaics, and metalwork. Several major restoration projects in the past several centuries have kept the colors vibrant. While individual details of the decor may not go back to the original construction, the overall effect gives us a sense of how richly colorful the built environment of the past could have been.

Tiled exterior wall of the Dome of the Rock, photograph by Godot13 via Wikimedia (Jerusalem; construction 692, tiles restored 1552; glazed tile; tiles by the workshop of Abdullah Tabrizi)

 

Interior mosaic, photograph by the Yorck Project via Wikimedia (Jerusalem; originally 692, later restored; glass, mother of pearl, and stone mosaic)

 

Dome interior, photograph by Virtutepetens via Wikimedia (Jerusalem; originally 692, later restored; metal and enamel)

 

The Dome of the Rock was a monument that was meant to make a statement. Other buildings of the time were not necessarily so dizzyingly colorful, but the shrine preserves a variety of visual culture we have very few other examples of. Even if nothing else exactly like it was ever built, many buildings once existed with just as bright an array of colors that are now long gone. When imagining what places in the past might have looked like, or when imagining new worlds inspired by them, remember that gray stone and white plaster are not the only options.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Rating: Castle, Season 2

We’re back with our ratings for season 2 of Castle, and it’s a decent second act for this crime-solving comedy. Here’s what we thought of it:

  1. “Deep in Death” – 5
  2. “The Double Down” – 6
  3. “Inventing the Girl” – 4.5
  4. “Fool Me Once…” – 5
  5. “When the Bough Breaks” – 6
  6. “Vampire Weekend” – 8
  7. “Famous Last Words” – 4.5
  8. “Kill the Messenger” – 8
  9. “Love Me Dead” – 5
  10. “One Man’s Treasure” – 5
  11. “The Fifth Bullet” – 8
  12. “A Rose for Ever After” – 3
  13. “Sucker Punch” – 2
  14. “The Third Man” – 5
  15. “The Suicide Squeeze” – 3
  16. “The Mistress Always Spanks Twice” – 7
  17. “Tick, Tick, Tick…” – 8
  18. “Boom!” – 4
  19. “Wrapped up in Death” – 7.5
  20. “The Late Shaft” – 4
  21. “Den of Thieves” – 4
  22. “Food to Die for” – 7
  23. “Overkill” – 3
  24. “A Deadly Game” – 8.5

The overall average this season is 5.5, a step down from the first season but still respectable. The episodes are fairly evenly spread between a number of weak offerings in the 2-4 range, a chunk of solid ones in the 5s and 6s, and quite a few good ones at 7 and higher.

Our lowest rating for this season is a 2 for “Sucker Punch,” the start of a long and tedious multi-season arc about political corruption and the murder of Detective Beckett’s mother. None of the episodes in this arc are much fun and most end up being unsatisfying dead ends with conveniently missing evidence, abstrusely shadowy conspiracies, and no end of boring angst for Beckett. When we want to watch X-Files, we’ll watch X-Files. We come to Castle for spark and wit, and these episodes have precious little of either.

At the other end of the scale, “A Deadly Game” gets an 8.5 for a story about a spy LARP gone wrong. This episode has the classic Castle qualities we love: a quirky premise that gives our characters plenty of entertaining rabbit holes to fall into before finally resolving in a serious and satisfying story of human emotion.

In many ways, this season is exactly what a season of Castle ought to be: not always brilliant, but usually imaginative and and entertaining, with room for all the characters to laugh, live, and grow.

Image: Detectives Beckett, Esposito, and Ryan from “When the Bough Breaks” via IMDb

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

The Letter for the King Trailer

A new Netflix young adult fantasy The Letter for the King has a trailer out:

The Letter for the King | Official Trailer | Netflix on YouTube

The Letter for the King is based on a novel by Dutch author Tonke Dragt and, according to IMDB, filmed in Czech Republic and New Zealand. (I thought I recognized the Southern Alps from Peter Jackson’s LotR films!)

Apart from what Tor.com has to tell, I don’t know anything about the series except that it reminds me of The Shannara Chronicles (both in the good and the bad). Of the writers I know nothing; of the cast, I’ve only seen two of the adults (David Wenham, Andy Serkis), so neither helps me decide whether it might be worth tracking down. Anyone know anything interesting about this project?

The series will be available on Netflix March 20, 2020.

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Quotes: She Gets to Screw It Up

After the release of Terminator: Dark Fate in November of 2019, Emmet Asher-Perrin wrote at Tor.com about the Terminator franchise. This section at the end describes perfectly why the original T (1984—oh gosh!) will always be my favorite of the series and why we need more (super)hero stories with women in the focus:

“The end of The Terminator is maybe more entrancing than any other finale in the franchise for that reason. It has more in common with a horror film than a sci-fi action flick. Sarah Connor, the final girl who has to make it through for so much more than the sake of her own life, crawling away from two glaring red eyes. Her leg is broken, she’s barely fast enough, but she pulls it all together to crush the T-800 into scrap parts. You can see the moment where the unflinching hero of Judgement Day is born, and it’s right when she says ‘You’re terminated, fucker.’ It only took a span of days to rip her normal, unremarkable life apart, but we get the chance to take the entire journey with her, to sit in her emotions and think about how it would feel. It’s just as fast as most ‘Chosen One’ narratives tend to be, but it doesn’t feel rushed because we are with her for every terrifying second of that ride.

“There are a few more heroes who get this treatment, but they are rarely women. Black Widow has a few muddled flashbacks in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Captain Marvel gets flickers of her past in formative moments. Wonder Woman gives us a brief introduction to Diana’s home and the women who raised her. Rey doesn’t get much time to wrestle with her budding Jedi abilities before heading off for training. We get brief hints of where these women came from, of how it feels to take everything onto their shoulders. But Sarah Connor gets to muddle through it. She gets to wear weird tie-dyed t-shirts and shiver when she’s cold and decide whether or not she can accept the idea of time travel and unborn sons and machines that will always find her no matter where she hides. She gets to present herself as wholly unqualified, and she gets to screw it up, and she still makes it out the other side to fight another day.” [original emphasis]

– Emmet Asher-Perrin

We’ve recently watched a few excellent crime procedurals (for example, Vera and The Fall, plus a new Finnish-Spanish production called Paratiisi) where the female protagonists were written with multiple characteristics that television’s stereotypical damaged males have (like a traumatic past, superficial sex / multiple throwaway partners, alcohol use, difficulty maintaining meaningful human relationships or, indeed, behaving professionally towards your colleagues, to mention a few).

Criticism of these kinds of women in stories is often framed in terms of likeability: you can’t like a woman who behaves in “un-feminine” ways. Well, assuming we’re not talking about comfort-watching or reading (which I’d allow some liberties to), do you have to? I’ve never met anyone who liked everyone they ever met.

I’d say it’s lazy storytelling at its core to plop in a feature of a given character or culture or setting without examining its purpose in the story. For example, while I appreciate the performances of Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in the Sherlock series by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, I detest the selfish, egotistical, arrogant, inconsiderate way Moffat and Gatiss have their Holmes behave. (There’s a reason we haven’t rewatched the series.) He if anyone is unlikeable, to put it mildly, but somehow people can only see his genius—even when the original Sherlock Holmes emphatically behaves with kindness.

And while it’s true that none of these “unlikeable” people would be easy to have as friends, it’s also true that none of them is without any redeeming qualities either. The point is, depicting one gender only in a certain light and cutting off other possibilities of being from them is overly limiting, because in the real world possibilities are nigh on infinite.

Depicting a variety of individuals is exactly what makes for instance heist stories like Ocean’s Eight or Jane Austen’s novels so enjoyable and delicious. Flipping details around, reversing patterns, defying expectations—these are exactly what make a story shine. Women are people and people come in a range of shapes, sizes, and mentalities. Just think of the range of abilities and body shapes Olympic athletes represent, for example.

Just like I do not want all men in my fiction to be cookie-cutter copies, I certainly don’t want all women in my fiction to be cast from the same mold. Expecting all or even most members of any group be an amorphous mass is really rather ill-advised, for it ruins many a good tale and taken to extremes would make stories untellable.

To re-phrase Asher-Perrin: what The Terminator really gets right is that Sarah Connor gets to feel her feels, to react, emote, and flail (like Ye Old Female Protagonist)—AND she gets to win the day.

Asher-Perrin, Emmet. “The First Terminator Movie Gave Sarah Connor One of the Most Compelling Origin Stories”. Tor.com, November 01, 2019.

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

Sappho: Making a Life in Archaic Greece

The poet Sappho (c. 630 – c. 570 BCE) is among the earliest writers whose work comes down to us from ancient Greece. She is best known for her lyric poetry, much of it on themes of love and longing. (Read some of my translations of her work here and here, or hear a recreated musical performance of one of her poems here.) Her literary works were widely popular in Greece and Rome, and later authors wrote many things about her life, few of them reliable. Much of what we think we know about Sappho’s life is conjecture based on her poetry. Still, even amid this uncertainty, Sappho stands for us as a representative of one of the most important transformative forces in ancient Greek history: the rise of trade.

During the Early Iron Age, a period of Greek history extending from around 1200 to 750 BCE, the Greek world was largely isolated. People lived in small villages of at most a few thousand people. Most people got by at a subsistence level, producing enough for their own needs and engaging in trade outside their own households in only a limited way. Political power, such as it was, rested with an entrenched class of warrior-aristocrats who monopolized control of scarce farmland. This elite class occasionally traded their agricultural surplus overseas for modest amounts of foreign luxuries, but that trade had little impact on the Greek world, and to the extent that it did, it only reinforced the social status of an existing elite. The poetry of this elite is represented by the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which celebrate martial values and the exploits of the warrior heroes that the aristocrats claimed as their ancestors.

Between 750 and 700, this stability was rapidly undermined by the development of new patterns of trade. Greeks began to venture out into the larger Mediterranean more often and more purposefully. The earliest accounts we have from the outside world describe the Greeks as pirates and raiders. Such dangerous ventures were not for the comfortably well off. The first Greeks to try their luck abroad were those who could not survive at home under the dominance of the entrenched aristocracy. Their risky raiding voyages had limited success, but the experience they gained in places like Egypt and the Levant prepared them for more profitable ventures as mercenaries and merchants. By the mid-600s, there was a growing class of successful merchants, artisans, and other professionals in Greece whose prosperity came from their connection to the outside world rather than control of land and who were increasingly agitating against the old aristocracy for a share of political power.

Sappho spoke for this new class of Greeks whose wealth came from abroad. Her brother Charaxus, whom she addresses in a few of her poems, was engaged in trading wine from their home on the island of Lesbos to Egypt. Sappho’s poetry invokes the importance of foreign contacts by using Lydia, a kingdom in Anatolia, as an image of beauty and luxury. Unlike the Homeric epics, Sappho’s lyrics speak of immediate, personal, emotional experiences. Individuals with their own desires and passions emerge as more important than family lines or warlike values.

Sappho’s poetry describes her intense romantic feelings for young women. Although we cannot know for sure to what extent these poems reflect Sappho’s personal experiences and how much is just literary invention, the idea that love mattered was, in its way, a radical thought. Among the landowning class, marriage was mostly a matter of family politics and economic negotiation. Ideally, of course, husbands and wives felt affectionately toward one another, but powerful, passionate love was not something to be sought out or valued. Homer’s heroes have little time for the emotional power of love: Helen is a prize to be fought over like any other piece of treasure, and the suitors who clamor for Penelope’s hand talk of their estates, not their feelings. In Sappho’s day, the Greeks who were making their living in trade could still be perfectly mercenary in their personal relationships, but the idea that love had power and that the feeling of longing for another person was worthy of attention was new and exciting. In much the same way that the shift from an agrarian economy to an industrial one in the nineteenth century CE brought with it a new interest in romantic love, Greeks in the seventh century BCE whose fortunes no longer depended on controlling land were beginning to think of individual feelings of love as something to value in a relationship.

Like the merchants and mercenaries who sought their fortunes amid the dangers of the unknown world outside Greece, the voices of Sappho’s poems dream that they might have what they long for, that their individual lives and struggles might matter.

Image: “Sappho embracing her lyre” via Wikimedia (Musee des Beaux-Arts de Brest; 19th c.; painting; by Jules-Elie de Launay)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Listening to Sappho

Sappho, like many ancient poets, wrote her poems not to be read on the page but to be sung. We don’t know specifically what her poems originally sounded like when performed, but we know enough about the notes, rhythms, and structure of ancient music to make some reasonable guesses. Here’s a version of Sappho’s first poem (my translation here) performed on a reconstructed ancient lyre by artist Bettina Joy de Guzman.

Sappho fr. 1: to Aphrodite via Bettina Joy de Guzman

An occasional feature on music and sound-related notions.

Mulan in Live Action: Final Trailer

Just over a month to go, and the final trailer for live-action Mulan is here:

 

Disney’s Mulan | Final Trailer by Walt Disney Studios on YouTube

More character moments and more action than in the previous two trailers, that’s for sure! There is apparently going to be a woman in a major protagonist role, which is perhaps tiresome, but then again, it’s a Disney production so it’s not likely the story will be something new and astounding. I’d also ditch the most egregious wirework stunts, but that’s another highly personal preference.

An interesting choice was to show Mulan’s parents discussing her choice and have them wrestle with the implications, but I’m guessing there won’t be too much of that in the movie. And it is still incredibly beautiful.

Mulan is released March 27, 2020.

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Black Widow Special Look Trailer

The Black Widow movie is released in just under two and a half months, and a special look trailer is out.

Marvel Studios’ Black Widow | Special Look by Marvel Entertainment on YouTube

We see more action, but still relatively few plot points are added to the first trailer: for example, the character I assume to be the Taskmaster remains officially unnamed in the clip. We do hear that a new class (a “vault”) of widows has been trained, which has lots of spin-off potential.

What I really enjoy the most, though, is that we see at least three women being pals (well, for certain values of pals at least) and kicking ass while at it. Sure, some of the stunts look a bit ludicrous, but show me a superhero movie that doesn’t have overdone action in it. The point is, women get to do it, too, and not just the lone Smurfette pasted in to flash cleavage. These women—like the other characters in the story—are highly trained and they are finally allowed to act it. Fucking finally!

Leverage Sophie It Is On

Black Widow opens May 01, 2020.

Image: screencap from the tv series Leverage (“The Office Job”, season 4 / episode 12) via Oui, Mais Non (insertusernameici) on Tumblr

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