I watched the Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift

Now here is where things get interesting. Not interesting in terms of script or cinematography or acting but interesting in that you really have to turn to Wikipedia or fan diagrams to work out what this film has to do with the other films in the franchise. However, I’m trying to treat these films as I see them unspoiled and I didn’t turn to Wikipedia until I watched the next film (Fast and Furious aka The Fast and the Furious 4).

Not every movie with a car race is a car racing movie. Take, for example, this scene from the 1970’s homage to the 1950’s that is Grease:

As well as borrowing a little from the chariot race in Ben-Hur (and a little nod to Thunder Road) the scene also borrows from Rebel Without a Cause. James Dean’s character isn’t a race as such but rather a game of chicken, with the two cars driving towards a cliff.

Cars and car racing as youth rebellion and masculine rivalry is a whole other thing. The third film in the Fast & Furious franchise, initially dumps the urban setting and heads out into the suburbs. The new protagonist Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) is a troubled youth whose only interest is in cars. Having being goaded into racing an obnoxious jock from his school, he once again ends up in trouble with the police. Here’s the first major scene from the film.

Rather like the whole franchise, the film then goes off in a different direction. Sean is given the choice of having to either go to gaol or go to live with his estranged father in Japan. Yes, that raises some very strange questions about America’s criminal justice system, not to mention Japan’s immigration system but these films will ask for far greater efforts in the suspension of disbelief than that.

In Tokyo, Sean ends up in a Japanese school that has a smattering of non-Japanese students, including Twinkie (Bow Wow), an African-America teenage with a side line in possibly stolen goods, and Neela (Nathalie Kelley) whose full background is never really explained. Neela is the girlfriend of Takashi, a young man with Yakuza connections and an avid street racer. Inevitably, Sean gets into a confrontation with Takashi which is resolved by (you guessed it) a street race. Sean loses the race badly but in the process falls under the mentorship of Han Lue, a business partner of Takashi.

The film then sort of follows a kind of Karate-kid (there’s at least one knowing joke about this in the film) martial arts training plot. Instead of a fighting style, Sean has to learn the art of ‘drifting’ i.e. causing the car to do a controlled skid when turning a corner. Meanwhile, he has to cope with life as a teenager, his troubled relationship with his dad, his rivalry with Takashi and his affection for Neela. He probably should also be worried about being deported from Japan for illegal car racing and his connections to criminal gangs but luckily that doesn’t come up.

Everything comes to a head when Takashi and Han fall out leading to a car chase in which Han dies. With everything on the line, Sean brokers a deal with Takashi’s Yakuza uncle to settle their disagreements with a car race down a twisty-turny mountain road.

This is a very earnest and very silly movie but it is does a far, far better job about being about a racing sub-culture than the first movie. There is a lot of racing, there is a lot of Sean learning how to race (or rather re-learning). Lucas Black is largely quite convincing as Sean, except he doesn’t look like he is a teenager (he was 24 at the time but I guess some teens look like older than they are). The car races themselves are still absurd but there’s more naturalism to them than the earlier films and effort to imply that these are things that could really happen.

Watched in the order that the films appear in (and that is an important caveat as we will learn), this film is a reboot: a new cast, a new protagonist, a new setting. The only connection with the earlier films (until the film’s postscript) is that it takes the premise of the first film: a movie about an illegal street racing subculture. There is no law-enforcement character, the male bonding aspect is altered to a mentor-student relationship and the criminality is adjacent to the racing.

The postscript, presents Sean as now a star in the Tokyo drift scene. He is challenged to a race and lo & behold the challenger turns out to be Vin Diesel who, it turns out, new Han Lue before Han had moved to Tokyo. This cameo ties the films together. Sort of, the connections will get complicated…

I quite enjoyed this, more than I expected. I preferred the absurd silliness of the second film but while this movie takes itself a bit too seriously, it is quite tightly put together. The actors all commit to their roles and while it is stuffed to the gills with cliches about American high school and American perceptions of Japan, it all sort of works.

The director (Justin Lin) goes on to make other films in the franchise and the writer (Chris Morgan) goes on to be the main writer for the subsequent films. So technically a reboot that worked…except…I already watched the next movie in the franchise and this film has (almost) nothing to do with it. Three movies in and this major film franchise still doesn’t know what it is as a sequence of films. Instead, this is the third experiment in trying to make a Fast and Furious film series happen and it is back to the drawing board for the next one.

If you want to watch something both depressing and funny, watch a ‘libertarian’ dance around Trump’s taxes

The New York Times has revealed details about Donald Trump’s tax returns https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-54323654

“The president paid just $750 (£580) in federal income tax both in 2016, the year he ran for the US presidency, and in his first year in the White House He paid no such taxes in 11 of 18 years of tax records examined by the newspaper The president has managed to lower his taxes through reporting hefty losses on his businesses After the success of The Apprentice TV show he did initially pay significant taxes – $95m over 18 years. But he later got most of that back via a $72.9 million federal tax refund. The refund remains under review”

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-54323654

People have speculated for several years now why Trump was hiding his tax returns and the general consensus was that they would show that he paid very little taxes due to claiming heavy losses. Those losses would damage his claims to be a successful business man and also imply that he might be cheating on his taxes. So the New York Times report is both a bombshell and also unsurprising. Trump is not the best liar in the land, he’s just the most enthusiastic. As deceptions go, this one was particularly transparent.

It is still damaging for Trump though and the reaction from his supporters has been notable. However, the world of US politics is not a simple binary one of Trump fans versus Trump non-fans. One of our many blog themes is that categories rarely have simple boundaries. Dividing the world into A and not-A reveals fractal spaces between the two: the hot dogs in the space of sandwiches, the submarines in the world of ships. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.

Witness Larry Correia. Libertarian, gun-rights advocate and, according to Larry, a valiant defender of freedom and scourge of the big city New York elites. Larry has never had an easy relationship with Donald Trump. When Trump was nominated as the GOP Presidential candidate, Larry was angry:

“You ignorant low information bastards. Motivated by fear and anger, you overlooked every gain made over the last few cycles, and traded it in to a lying huckster democrat for some magic beans. So you could stick it to the establishment, by electing the shit bird who funded them.”

http://monsterhunternation.com/2016/05/04/on-the-election/

Larry was under no illusions about Trump’s capabilities except the same one lot’s of people were under: he thought Trump would lose badly. Fate had other things in store for us all and left Larry with a dilemma. Larry’s ‘libertarianism’ is little more than anti-leftism and with much of his readership and many of his more vocal supporters endorsing Trump’s policies, the overt anti-Trumpism was not going to sell well as a position. So Larry has fallen into a political position best characterised as anti-anti-Trump — itself an interesting example of somebody trying to occupy a conceptual space that naive logic would suggest is indistinguishable from being pro-Trump.

The anti-anti-Trump position is a tricky one because it largely requires its advocates to avoid talking directly about Trump and instead focus on the opponents of Trump. However, among many things, Larry is also a former accountant and the issue of Trump’s taxes is a hard one to avoid. Yet, Trump’s position is also essentially indefensible and indeed, consistent of Larry’s former description of Trump as a ‘huckster’.

The solution is to try and dance around the issue, claim nobody else knows what they are talking about, while never actually engaging with Trump’s situation at all.

“So big picture time…First off, “morality” doesn’t have jack shit to do with taxation. You pay what you legally owe. Nobody willingly pays the government more than they legally owe.This has always been this way since America has had income taxes. There is endless court precedent. You pay what you legally owe. That’s it. If you pay less than you legally owe, then the government will fine or imprison you. If you pay more than you legal owe, the government will laugh and laugh, because you are an idiot, and you deserve to be poor.”

https://monsterhunternation.com/2020/09/28/no-you-idiots-thats-not-how-taxes-work-an-accountants-guide-to-why-you-are-a-gullible-moron/

Maybe Larry think taxation rates and tax laws are immutable or maybe he just thinks that for this part of his argument? Maybe, that’s a tendentious defence of a businessman’s taxes but…it’s not a very smart or insightful point to make when that businessman is the President of the USA. Meanwhile, back in reality, “fairness” is a common and reasonable standard against which to judge the outcomes of tax policy. Are very wealthy people paying less tax than much poorer people? That implies 1. an ethical problem 2. a social problem and 3. a really poor way of funding your government. That third point is true EVEN IF you think the overall level of taxation should be low.

“Is it unfair that rich guys can employ Gandalf level CPAs and take advantage of more complicated tax laws, while regular people use TurboTax? Yep. But in the meantime, as long as those tax laws are there, the rich guys would be utter fools not to take advantage of them.”

It is unfair but taxation has nothing to do with morality? Hmmm, and also Trump isn’t just a random rich guy but the guy with distinct power over the taxation system. True, he doesn’t have the power to write tax legislation and these tax returns pertain mainly to before he was President but the records do pertain to his overall competence, his attitude towards public service and his public image.

“Your feelings don’t mean shit. Same as the rest of us, Trump owes what he owes. And the IRS will determine if that number is accurate or not.”

The feelings of US voters towards the US President in an election year shouldn’t be dismissed so lightly. What also should not be lightly dismissed is the extent to which Trump is using his office to enrich himself and shield himself from legal accountability. Further Larry skips neatly over one of the key reasons why Trump was paying so very little tax: Trump has significant debts. Those debts aren’t news but the New York Times story confirms much that was already know (eg see this 2017 piece https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/01/your-day-one-guide-president-trumps-conflicts-interest/ )

“But Vladeck, an expert in national-security law, says there’s a larger problem here. “More fundamentally, there’s the concern that a president who is personally on the hook for significant loans that come due while he’s the president might take official actions, or appear to take official actions, that are meant to alleviate the personal financial pressure he faces,” Vladeck tells Rolling Stone. “Indeed, there’s a reason why the federal government generally won’t give security clearances to those who have significant debt — it’s because they’re too much of a risk. So, too, apparently, is the President of the United States.””

https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/trump-tax-returns-new-york-times-debt-deutsche-bank-irs-1067422/

The most powerful person in the USA is deeply indebted to numerous people. He may be in debt to the IRS as well. He may or may not be in debt to the Bank of China. The impact of all of these all compromise the decisions Trump makes regardless of ideological stance.

But, you are all stupid because Larry knows more about taxes than you do. Actually, I don’t doubt for a second that Larry knows a LOT more about the US taxation system than I do — it really would be hard for him to know less. However, what is notable is that nowhere in his two-thousand word defence of Trump does he ever point out anything that Trump’s critics are getting factually or technically wrong about taxes or taxation.

So why is this depressing? Larry Correia’s dislike of Trump is genuine but like so much of the US right, the entrenched opposition and hyper-partisan positioning means nothing will shift. The right has abandoned not just morality but also ideology, leaving only ties of allegiance.

Susan’s Salon: 2020 September 27/28

Farewell September


Please use the comment section to just chat about whatever you want. Susan’s Salon is posted early Monday (Sydney time which is still Sunday in most countries) . It’s fine to be sad, worried, angry or happy (or all of those things at once).

Please feel free to post either troubling news or pleasant distractions in the comments for this open thread. [However, no cranky conflicts between each other in the comments.] Links, videos, cat pictures 🐈 etc are fine! Whatever you like and be nice to one another 😇

Wear appropriate PPE while posting a comment.

The Fellowship of the Ring but backwards

Our final instalment, as the epic fantasy reaches its exciting conclusion.

Sam and Frodo reach the rendezvous point on the Anduin river. Sam heads off to look for the others while Frodo meets Boromir for the first time. Boromir suggests Frodo takes the ring to Gondor but Frodo is all ‘been there, done that’ and insists the ring must be taken to its ultimate destination: his uncle in The Shire. Boromir heads off to tell the rest of the gang, while Frodo goes to check on Sauron by sitting on a rock.

Once everybody is together, they find a bunch of eleven boats lying around. Realising these boats must have come from the elven kingdom of Lothlorien they decide to take them back there. ‘Oh by the way,’ says Aragorn, ‘I think our gang should be called the Fellowship because we are bunch of fellas on some ships.’

After sailing up river, they are greeted warmly by the elves and their Queen, Galadriel, is delighted when each member of the Fellowship give her gifts, as well as a bunch of cloaks, some broaches and a pile of snacks. Later, Galadriel interviews Sam and Frodo but the meeting doesn’t go well. Afterward the elves are less friendly and eventually the elves escort the Fellowship out of Lothlorien at arrow point.

Dejected, the Fellowship decide to cross the Misty Mountains via the dwarf mines of Moria. They are welcomed by a huge crowd of orcs and other monsters. Unfortunately, once underground they discover the main route further in is impassable because a bridge across a chasm is broken.

Just then, with a mighty spell, a voice cries “Sloof uoy ylf!” and woooossshhhh! Up from the chasm comes Gandalf (dressed in grey) and a Balrog who combine their magic to rebuild the bridge. Everybody is glad to see that Gandalf is back alive but he explains he is Gandalf the Grey now.

The Fellowship chase the orcs into the mine. They bring some orcs back to life as well as some cave trolls. Eventually the excitement dies down and the assorted goblin forces of the mine go back to sleep.

The exit at the western end of the mine is blocked but a helpful tentacle monster outside, unblocks the door. Once outside, the Fellowship wait around until some ponies turn up and then head off north.

They get lost and attempt to climb back east over the mountains but turn around when they realise that is a bad idea. Eventually they make their way to Rivendell.

At a long meeting, the Fellowship decides to dissolve itself. Frodo talks to his uncle Bilbo, who is currently living in Rivendell. He is not looking well and Frodo offers to give him the ring but they decide they should wait until they are back in the Shire.

Later Frodo himself falls ill and eventually falls into a coma.

To help Frodo, Gandalf casts a spell on a river which flows backward and spawns a bunch of sinister looking black riders. Aragorn, Merry, Pippin, Sam and Frodo head back over the river towards the Shire with the help of some elves. Frodo’s condition improves somewhat but he’s still very sick.

After trying various herbs, Aragorn takes the hobbits to Weathertop. There the black riders reveal that they are the Nazgul and their leader (who was brought back to life in the first book) cuts out some cursed metal from Frodo. This is what had been making Frodo ill and with it gone he feels a lot better (this process is all foreshadowed in the early chapters of the first book). The black riders run away.

Aragorn and the Hobbits walk on towards the town of Bree. For tax purposes they start calling Aragorn ‘Strider’. At Bree they stay at an inn but Strider becomes quickly less sociable. The next day the hobbits leave Bree without Strider and head back to the Shire.

On the way, a being called Tom Bombadil tempts them to hide out in some barrows. There the hobbits leave a few swords behind. They then go visit Bombadil’s house and stay the night. The next day they have some wild antics in the Old Forest.

They cross the river into the Shire proper and occasionally see that the black riders are still hanging around. Maybe they are checking that Frodo is feeling better after that nasty infection?

They go plant some mushrooms and eventually make it to Frodo’s home at Bag End.

You might thing that this is the end of the story but no. This books has a number of endings.

Weeks pass and Gandalf comes to visit Frodo. They have a discussion about his ring. Initially Gandalf is very worried but his concern abates a little as they talk.

Time passes and Frodo prepares a big party to welcome his uncle Bilbo back from Rivendell. When Bilbo arrives at Bag End he finds Frodo’s ring in an envelope for him. He uses the ring to make himself invisible (the ring can do that) and appears as if by magic at the party which is in full swing.

Bilbo gives some big speeches. There are fireworks and much festivity. Eventually everybody goes home. Frodo spends the day helping pack up.

The End.

Sorry, I forgot the twist at the end. The twist is that Bilbo plans to one day visit Gollum in the Misty Mountains and give him Frodo’s ring.

The Two Towers but backwards

Neiklot’s sequel to the Return of the King but backwards.

When we last saw them, Sam Gamgee had left Frodo Baggins tied up in an orc fortress guarding a mountain pass out of Mordor. Sam sets off to find a giant spider. Meanwhile, Frodo himself has somehow become envenomed and tied up in spider silk. He is carried out of the fortress by a couple of orcs to the spider’s lair. Unfortunately, the spider (Shelob) is dead. Luckily, Sam (who now has Frodo’s magic ring, shiny sword and portable light source), resurrects the spider with a few nifty reverse-knife stabs.

The grateful spider removes the webbing holding Frodo and then sucks all the poison out of him. While somewhat puzzled by that whole procedure, Frodo and Sam make friends again and leave Shelob to guard their escape route from Mordor.

Climbing down from the mountain pass, Frodo and Sam team up with Gollum who helps guide them down. Near the bottom the sneak past Minas Morgul where the Lord of the Nazgul is busy bringing his army back from Gondor. From there they head into Ithilien.

In Ithilien they meet Denethor’s son Faramir. He is sad because Boromir has died. ‘Who’s that then?’ asked the hobbits. “My brother.’ says Faramir. ‘Never met him’ say the hobbits.

From Ithilien, the hobbits and Gollum head up to the main entrance of Mordor and then west into the Dead Marches. Eventually, Gollum leaves the two hobbits (but secretly follows them from a discrete distance).

Meanwhile, Gandalf and the hobbit Pippin are heading to Rohan. One evening Gandalf hands Pippin a palantir which Pippin uses to communicate with Sauron. Later Pippin hides the palantir in Gandalf’s pack. They meet up with the hobbit Merry, as well as the former king of Gondor and a dwarf called Gimli and an elf called Legolas. They also catch up with King Theoden and his forces.

They all go to visit Saurman in Isengard. There they discover why Saruman is so unhappy. His city is a complete disaster area! Saruman is hiding in his tower, presumably with no way of contacting the outside world. Gandalf gets Pippin to throw up the palantir so at least he can talk to Sauron.

The party decide to help Saruman out. Merry and Pippin will convince the tree-like ent-people to rebuild Saruman’s city, while Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas and the forces of Rohan will round up Uruk-Hai and other people to go and live there.

Aragorn et al head to Helm Deep and get busy reverse stabbing a lot of Uruk-Hai. Gandalf leaves Aragorn to keep resurrect goblins etc at Helm Deep and heads off to round up more of Saruman’s new subjects in the countryside. A few days later they all meet up again at Edoras, the capital of Rohan. Having done what they can for Saruman, Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas and Gandalf head towards Fangorn forest to meet up with Merry and Pippin.

Sadly, before they catch up with the two hobbits, Gandalf dies for no reason whatsoever. They can’t even reverse stab him to bring him back!

Merry and Pippin have already headed off from Fangorn by catching a lift from a gang of orcs who carry them off to the great river Anduin. There the orcs bring to life Boromir and they leave the hobbits in his care. Eventually, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas get to the rendezvous point as well.

‘Now all we have to do is wait for Frodo and Sam,’ says Aragorn.

The book closes on this nail biting cliff hanger! Where are Frodo and Sam? Are they just running a bit late or they are waiting at a different bit of the river? Find out in final book of the trilogy!

The Return of the King but backwards

A plot summary of JRR Tolkien’s book but backwards.

Frodo Baggins, a hobbit, arrives from the Undying Lands to Middle Earth on a ship with many powerful elves and the wizard Gandalf. At the Grey Havens he is met by three hobbits who greet him warmly and invite him to come and live in their homeland, The Shire.

Frodo travels to the Shire with Sam Gamgee, a prosperous and important hobbit who is highly regarded in The Shire. Frodo settles down for a quiet but comfortable life in his new home at Bag End but is troubled by prophetic dreams. Despite this sense of growing doom, it is a very prosperous time for the Shire even if it’s population starts getting slightly smaller.

Suddenly a dark change comes upon the Shire. Some evil force is at work! Buildings fall rapidly into disrepair while many new uglier buildings begin to appear. The hobbits start forming their own armed factions. One day a large mob of armed hobbits, led by Frodo’s friends assemble near Bag End, when to their horror the dead body of strange wizard and his henchmen appear. By some horrific necromantic power, the bodies of the wizard and the henchmen spring to life!

Frodo and his friends are forced to retreat as the wizard (known as both ‘Saruman’ and ‘Sharky’) musters forces against them. Frodo and his companions finally flee The Shire altogether. They meet up with the friendly wizard Gandalf the White at the town of Bree.

The Hobbits set off to get aid for the Shire from the King of Gondor. They reach Gondor with Gandalf but not long after their arrival a strange malaise falls on Aragon the King. Troubled, he decides to abdicate his thrown and divorce his wife Arwen so that he can deal with the coming crisis.

To everybody’s horror, Frodo and Sam fall into a sudden coma. Both of them begin to suffer from the symptoms of exposure and dehydration. Wounds appear on Frodo’s half-formed fingers. Their health crisis worsens but before a remedy can be found, the two hobbits are kidnapped by giant eagles. The eagles fly the hobbits to a mysterious volcano, Mount Doom in the desolate land of Mordor.

Regaining consciousness on the slopes of the Mount Doom they discover the volcano is in the process of erupting. They make their way into a cave as the eruption lessens. Overwhelmed by some sort of psychic force within the volcano, Frodo performs an incredible feat of magic. He brings forth from the lava a creature called Gollum and a magical ring. The Gollum creature then attaches the ring to Frodo’s hand by magically inserting new fingers on to Frodo’s hand using his teeth. As weird as this sounds, it does stop the volcano from erupting.

The weird volcanic ritual’s true purpose is revealed when Frodo feels the presence of a new being: Sauron the Dark Lord! Somehow, the ritual has brought this horrific being into existences as well as his many minions! Elsewhere in Mordor, the huge tower known as Barad-Dur springs into being and Sauron’s attention is focused on Frodo.

Coming to his senses, Frodo removes the ring from his new-formed finger and he and Sam flee the volcano. They make their way down the mountain, occasionally harassed by Gollum. They land of Mordor has become populated by a military force of orcs and the two hobbits realise they have to find an escape route. They head towards a pass over the mountains that should take them back to Gondor.

After a long trek, they reach the mountain pass of Cirith Ungol. Sam decides to betray Frodo (not unreasonably given that Frodo appears to be part of a plot to resurrect Sauron the Lord of Darkness) and leads him into the guard tower and ties him up so he is a prison for the orcs. Apparently Sam has been planning this all so that he can fight a giant spider who lives locally and to whom Sam has an unresolved grudge…

…Meanwhile, Aragorn the former king of Gondor has assembled a small army and has made his way to the gates of Mordor. They arrive just in time for Frodo’s weird volcanic ritual to bring not only Sauron into existence but also Sauron’s terrible army that assembles itself at the gates of Mordor to challenge Aragorn’s forces! After a skirmish, Aragorn is forced to retreat but the forces of Mordor allow Aragorn to take his troops back to Minas Tirith.

The safety of Minas Tirith does not last long. An army from Mordor forms around the city with many of Sauron’s forces rising from the dead and battle is joined! Realising the necromantic powers in play, Eowyn of Rohan uses the battle to resurrect one of Sauron’s chief minions the Lord of the Nazgul. However, her efforts are actually an attempt to bring her father King Theoden back to life!

Aragon’s is forced to retreat from the battle and using mysterious ghosts, commandeers ships to evacuate his forces. Meanwhile, the Riders of Rohan also flee from the battle field led by their resurrected king. With these forces gone, Sauron’s army lay siege to Minas Tirith.

All looks hopeless! But then the necromantic tides turn when Lord Denethor walks out alive from a mysterious pyre that was burning! Initially confused, Denethor regains control of the city from Gandalf and under his increasingly confident leadership the siege from Sauron’s forces lessens. As Minas Tirith’s defences and morale improve, the intensity of the attacks lessen. Eventually, the army laying siege to the city realise that the place is impregnable. Disheartened, Sauron’s forces make an orderly retreat.

Seeing that Minas Tirith and Gondor are now at least temporarily safe, the wizard Gandalf decides to leave the city and travel to Rohan, which has expressed some concern about the wizard Saruman who is currently locked up in a tower in the ruined city of Isengard. Meanwhile, Aragorn has made his own way to Rohan and has used his own necromantic powers to install some ghosts in a cave.

The heroes have avoided destruction but the forces of evil only appear to have gotten stronger in the process! The book ends with the fate of Middle Earth in doubt!

Mechanics and genre

A character from previous years re-appeared this week. (I say ‘re-appeared’ but that’s obviously from my perspective, I doubt they were hiding in a box until my attention was drawn their way.) Damien Walter, the former science-fiction critic from the Guardian, posted on the r/printSF reddit and the people there couldn’t decide if it was a jolly topic for debate or trolling. In the end they split the difference, retained the discussion but banned Damien Walter. Well, I guess online communities find ways of policing themselves.

He starts by observing a change about midway through Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Empire (yes, I know) and then argues that:

“Asimov was a great writer on many levels. But it’s kind of fascinating that it takes him a few hundred pages to do what any novelist would be doing from the first page – get into his characters. This is what the lit folks mean when they say SF is badly written. There’s a whole set of techniques evolved over centuries of novel writing, SF often misses them all or in part. I’d argue SF is a different mode of fiction writing. One closer to creative non-fiction, because of its focus on ideas. But I’d also argue SF writers could do well to read a lot outside SF, to learn those other skills.”

https://www.reddit.com/r/printSF/comments/iy3syl/what_do_the_literary_folks_mean_when_they_say/

There is a lot wrong with the argument but I think it was the general tone that upset people on the Reddit. However, let’s unwrap a few things.

  • The specific example is a ‘novel’ that is two distinct novellas stuck together. The change in style is Asimov writing a distinctly different style of story.
  • That aspect of older US-style science fiction is important when considering the styles and conventions of the genre. Much of it was published first in magazines and the medium influenced the genre.
  • His example is a novel published in the 1950s from stories published in the 1940s. That’s not a great example on which to base a generalisation about what SF writers should do now.
  • Do “lit folks” say SF is badly written? Is this really a thing? Maybe it is and maybe they are pointing at works from the 1950s? Plausibly somebody somewhere holds that opinion but an example of somebody notable would help here to frame the point.
  • Is SFF a different mode of fiction writing (aside from it being a genre)? Specifically “one closer to creative non-fiction”? In general, I think not. I can see a case that SFF contains with it subgenres of fiction written using non-fictional conventions and certainly the Foundation + first half of Foundation & Empire has some of that quality — a fictional future history.
  • …but if we do focus on that sub-genre of SFF, a writer intentionally writing fiction using non-fictional conventions is making a deliberate choice. Think about the example of a fantasy map. It’s fiction and it is SFF but the fact that it lacks characters or plot devices or reflections on the interior thoughts of a protagonist, isn’t because the fantasy map maker hasn’t read widely.
  • More generally is it really the case that SFF writers are deficient in the skills of literary fiction? I’m not sure the question makes any sense. There are certainly some very accomplished writers and there isn’t a shortage of well written SFF. Are there also writers whose work is less skilled? Sure, but notable ones are writing stuff that works for them and their readers. Writing in a style that works for the story and the readers is a choice.

Horses for courses I guess. Understanding conventions, tropes, stylistic devices and deploying for the purpose of writing is the skill. Science Fiction and Fantasy as a very broad genre is unusual in containing within it notable stories and sub-genres that are highly conventionalised along with notable stories that are highly subversive of conventions. It’s a really big playground.

Looking at covid stats again

Our World in Data has an interesting section on covid infection modelling, that looks at estimates of the ‘true’ number of infections based on the available data. https://ourworldindata.org/covid-models

Meanwhile, here is an update of the graph I showed in my previous post.

The same caveats apply. The exact number of confirmed cases isn’t comparable between countries for multiple reasons. However, the trajectory of cases tells us a lot and to that end I’ve left Singapore and Sweden on the graph for comparison. As I said previously, both countries have different circumstances and different approaches to the pandemic but they’ve ended up with similar curves that show slow growth in cases but not rapidly surging growth.

Here is a similar graph but with a modified choice of countries that shows a variety of different patterns each of which tell their own national story.

Israel, Spain, the UK and Australia each have had situations of initial growth in infections that was then met with various lockdown measures, leading to a flattening of the curve, leading to a degree of relaxation of measures…then being hit by a second wave. I hadn’t been aware of how badly the situation had changed in Israel. Abigail Nussbaum has an excellent account of what went wrong here https://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2020/07/from-new-zealand-to-america-covid-19-in-israel It looks like the UK may be on a similar path but potentially it may flatten out again.

Poor leadership, confused strategy and confused public health messaging do appear to be a common theme in countries struggling to control infection rates. I wonder if that will be confirmed when we finally get past this pandemic and researchers have had time to sift through how policy responses impacted both infection rates and death rates.

Our World in Data also has a page on the economic impact of the virus: https://ourworldindata.org/covid-health-economy I’ve been sceptical of the data on death rates for multiple reasons but that page has an interesting graph comparing confirmed deaths per million people and GDP growth compared with 2019 (the ‘growth’ is all negative of course). The article contends:

“But among countries with available GDP data, we do not see any evidence of a trade-off between protecting people’s health and protecting the economy. Rather the relationship we see between the health and economic impacts of the pandemic goes in the opposite direction. As well as saving lives, countries controlling the outbreak effectively may have adopted the best economic strategy too.”

I’d still be sceptical about making a stronger conclusion there i.e. that poor controls of the virus lead to worse economic impact. However, I think we can safely conclude that framing health measures as a trade-off with economic growth is misleading. Avoiding taking measures to control the rate of infection brings no observable national economic benefits.

I watched 2Fast, 2Furious

The story so far. Curious about how a bloated film franchise spawned, I watched the first Fast and Furious movie, having never watched any of the films before. The initial film is an odd beast, partly based on an article in Vibe magazine entitled Racer X (https://www.vibe.com/2015/03/racer-x-rafael-estevez-kenneth-li-fast-and-furious-inspiration-may-1998 ). That article makes its own interesting connection with popular culture:

‘As a kid growing up in Washington heights, Estevez remembers being transfixed every week by TV’s The Dukes of Hazzard. “The Dukes pulled a lot of stunts, soared through the air, and were always getting chased by cops,” he recalls. “The best part was they would always get away.”’

There’s a long history of car movies (and in the above example, TV show) where the heroes are drivers and they have an antagonistic relationship with the police. I suppose that’s inevitable given the inherent public menace of driving really, really quickly on public roads but the connection is more free floating than that. 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit has the hero using his car to help a truck smuggling crates of Coor’s beer or, to step away from the American south, 1969’s The Italian Job is overtly a crime caper film that features Mini Coopers as part of a complex getaway plan after a gold heist. This second example was loosely remade in 2003 by F Gary Gray, the same year as 2Fast 2Furious was released and notably included Jason Statham in the cast.

I’ll contend that there’s a shitty-libertarian aesthetic to the car movie. Driving is posed as heroic and in opposition to authority, the police are antagonists (not always the main antagonist) or at the very least in an ambiguous role (as Paul Walker’s character is in the first Fast & Furious film). However, given the inevitable chaos and destruction that necessarily gets depicted (often bloodlessly but still extensive) there is no sense in which laws against driving really, really fast on public streets look like a bad idea. The drivers are people fighting for their freedom (in one sense) but they aren’t fighting against injustices necessarily (nor consistently depicted as doing so).

In the first film Vin Diesel’s Dominic character gets to personify this muddled ethic/aesthetic. He’d rather die than go back to prison and he commits violent crime (hijacking lorries) to fund the one experience that makes him feel free — illegal street racing. It is the pursuit of happiness in chrome and fuelled by nitrous oxide. Paul Walker’s Brian is unconvincing as a police officer in the first film and inevitably let’s Dominic escape at the end of the film.

The sequel is, I think, the film that first vaguely nudged my notice with it’s cute-but-corney sequel title. If you had asked me a couple of weeks ago, I’d have said the title was 2Fast, 2Furious: Tokyo Drift because that kind of absurd sequel title is what had permeated into online culture. It isn’t a good film by an stretch of the imagination but it is a much better film than the first.

Brian O’Conner is now living in Miami as an illegal street racer having abandoned being a cop (or being sacked or he’s on the run — it’s a little unclear) after the events of the first film. After being caught racing, he is recruited by FBI Agent Bilkins from the first film to join an undercover operation against a South American drug lord. That whole scenario retains the very 1980s feel that was in the first film.

This isn’t quite a heist film but it is more like one than the first film. That original film was still trying to do a kind of slice-of-life examination of a sub-culture (and failing) that reflected some aspects of the original article. The sequel is more clearly living in the land of fiction. Yet surprisingly, the sequel feels like it has a lot more racing in it.

The film starts with an extended racing sequence which is a lot more fun to watch than the first film’s races. I was genuinely surprised by how much better it was. That certainly wasn’t due to realism because I have exactly zero experience with cars other than as a passenger. However, I’ve played my own share of racing video games and even if your only experience was with Mario Kart, the aesthetic connection between this first race and games is clear.

There’s no Vin Diesel in this film, so the male bonding aspect comes in the form of Tyrese Gibson, who plays a boyhood friend of O’Conner’s called Roman Pearce. The stakes are established by the FBI promising to clear the criminal records of both O’Conner and Pearce if they help take down the drug lord.

At this point the plot doesn’t make any sense. There are plans and betrayals and twists but quite what anybody is trying to achieve is unclear. The schemes of the police, customs, FBI and the drug lord are mainly pretexts for situations where people have to drive really fast. O’Conner and Pearce need a second set of cars? Problem solved! They’ll race a couple of side characters and win their cars! Yup, it is a video-game style quest and the film uses video game plotting to move O’Conner from one driving sequence to another.

The plot doesn’t withstand any close examination but neither did the plot of the first film. What it does do is move the characters quickly to new action sequences and in each sequence there is a clearly explained (if very localised) set of stakes. Race here to collect a package to prove you can drive quickly enough to get the job with the drug lord. Race now to win two extra racing cars that your FBI/Customs handlers don’t know about.

Everything moves towards an epic all-the-police-cars style car chase sequence with a heist-move-like we-planned-all-this-earlier sequence and a final showdown with a baddy. That showdown, involving launching a car into the air to crash onto a boat, gets an overt Dukes of Hazard reference from one of the main characters.

This film knows that it is ridiculous which gives it a major advantage to the original. It avoids the confused ethics of the first which tries to cast Dominic as a heroic character who just wants to live a quiet life exceeding the speed limit and beating up lorry drivers by adding in a stock movie villain character in the form of evil-south-American drug lord. It also knows that people want to see absurd car stunts but to its credit when the heroes do crash land their car on top of a boat they are shown as being badly stunned by the experience.

A Cat Reads Hyperion by Dan Simmons

[September 25, 2019, Felapton Towers]
Good evening everybody, it is I, Timothy the Talking Cat, speaking to you from the magnificent library within my palatial home in Bortsworth, in the green, pleasant and European Union free kingdom of England. God bless her and all who sail upon her.

Today I have mostly been reading Hyperion by Dan Simmons. How much do I love Dan Simmons? I love him a LOT. I love him so very much. Sure, sure, it was only a few weeks ago that I picked up one of his books and flicked through a few pages and I was like “Jezz-louise, where are the ray guns and all the explosions and what’s with all these hoity-toity literary references. This guys is one of them there literati types with their big New York pent-up houses and a butler called Snifflington” and I got all mad and ran around the house three times and then hid in a cupboard and wouldn’t come out. But later, when old Kamchatka Flugelhorn was trying to coax me out for dinner he asked me why I was upset and I explained that Dan Simmons had an audacious lack of rocket ships in the book I was looking at and it had me so, so very mad.

“Judging by claw marks,” said Camerashop Fettlehouse, “you were looking at my copy of The Terror?”

“That’s the very one!” I shouted back (very loudly because I was hiding under a jumper inside the cupboard), “Not a single rocket ship! Not a single space battle!”

“It’s a supernatural horror set on a Victorian British sailing ship. I really don’t know why you would expect rocket ships. It has a giant supernatural polar bear monster in it, if that helps?”

I can tell you now that did not help. Nor did Cattlegrid Fentanyl’s lurid explanation of the plot. Now I was not merely outraged about the blatant incursion of literature into my beloved genre but I was also mortally terrified that I was being stalked by a malovelent spirit in the form of a polar bear. Do you know how many cats get eaten by polar bears each year? Me neither. Which only goes to show that SOMEBODY is hiding the truth. “Probably Greta Thunberg” I said. Of course, silly Camisole Fruitcake couldn’t follow a simple chain of reasoning and expressed some puzzlement about my “outburst”.

I am a patient cat. I suffer fools. I do not suffer them gladly but I do suffer them, for the universe keeps throwing them in my path. I explained in terms a three year old could understand that Ms Thunberg was from polar bear land and so was obviously in on the whole plan to set polar bear ninja ghost assassins after me.

“Dan Simmons is not part of a shadowy cabal run by Greta Thunberg that is plotting to have you eaten by polar bears!” he said. I snorted in disdain, having already laid out the logical proof of my conclusions. “No, seriously. Look, everybody got mad at Dan Simmons for being rude about Greta Thunberg.” Now this was a much better argument than Camelback Flutesection had used earlier (e.g. “Polar bear land is not the name of a country and even if it was it wouldn’t be Sweden.”)

“Really?” I asked, looking out from the cupboard — ready at a moments notice to retreat at the first sign of any spectral ursus maritimus.

“Yes, really. The guy has really reactionary views.” explained the human. Well, that changes thing. If there is one thing I will take a stand on it is my unswerving opposition to cancel culture! Yes, a lesser man would cower in fear at the thought of Twitter mobs but not a fearless and outspoken cat like myself. Pausing only to eat a large dinner of smoked salmon with kibble crusting and then pausing a bit longer for an extended nap by the electric heater, I leapt into action! I rushed to my Facebook page and informed my many followers that Dan Simmons was my favourite author now and also what books I should read by my favourite author (with a specific note that I’m under strict medical advice not to consume any media containing polar bears). Straw Puppy said I should read Hyperion because I would “like the main character – he’s very prickly”.

Well so far I’ve only read a few pages and look at this:

“Whether they seek to control just Hyperion for the Time Tombs or whether this is an all-out attack on the Worldweb remains to be seen. In the meantime, a full FORCE:space battle fleet complete with a forecaster construction battalions has spun up from the Camn System to join the evacuation task force”

From the Prologue, Hyperion by Dan Simmons

That’s what I’m talking about! Time tombs! Space battle fleet! All-out attacks by a sinister group of invaders! I’m a simple cat with simple pleasures and there are the things I want from my reading. Give me stuff like this! Future space action on weird planets! That’s what my now favourite author Dan Simmons is offering! Good for him. I’m glad I found a book that avoids the pretentious topics of the literati set with their obsession with stuff like Chaucer or early nineteenth century poets swooning to death in Rome or whatever. Simple clean narratives is what a red-blooded cat needs to relax and not over-complicated non-linear narratives, pretentious symbolism or inconclusive ends. I’m sure this book is going to be great!


Afterword by Camestros Felapton

Timothy began reading Hyperion by Dan Simmons a year ago on Thursday. I promised to post his review as soon as he had finished it. The book was last seen being used to wedge open a rusted filing cabinet in Timothy’s “war room”.