Watching Alien For The First Time

It’s the middle of NaNoWriMo but that doesn’t mean I haven’t taken a few (a lot of) breaks. During one particular break, I decided to watch Ripley Scott’s Alien after I noticed it on Prime Video.

Some movies become such a large part of popular culture that even if you haven’t seen them you might as well have. Alien is not one of those.

There are a few scenes we’ve all seen, or at least we’ve seen parodies of them. The face-hugger, the chest-burster, the alien itself. Yet most of the movie has safely stayed out of those references. That meant that most of the movie was unknown to me going in and I’m going to say that it was good. Good in that it’s well made, the effects still hold up in that they are dated by not so much that they ruin your immersion, and that I can appreciate it for what it is.

I can’t quite say that I enjoyed the movie, however. The first half is slow and I struggled to pay attention to it. By the time the plot picks up in the second half the movie is a lot more enjoyable but it was hard to follow because I struggled so much to pay attention in the first half.

That said I’m glad I watched it. It’s one of those classics that I’ve been neglecting and it’s always fun to see these older staples of the genre.

The History Behind the Character Names in ‘A Memory Called Empire’

A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan Book 1) by [Arkady Martine]

This is a book that has been sitting in my TBR pile for quite a while now and truthfully I am not done reading it, but the naming conventions interested me so much I decided to look into them a bit and write this post.

The book follows the new ambassador from Lsel Station, Mahit Dzmire, as she arrives at the imperial court of the Teixcalaanli Empire. Her first priority? Finding out what happened to her deceased predecessor. That’s enough context for now.

What I really want to talk about are the names of the characters from the Teixcalaanli Empire. The first one we meet is named Three Seagrass and we are soon introduced to many others like Nine Maize, Ninteen Adze, Six Direction, Fifteen Engine, Thirty Larkspur, and so many others. Luckily, we see all this through the eyes of a character who is new to the culture and her assigned cultural liaison is able to provide some context. In short, all names consist of a number and a noun. Parents then use certain customs such as a belief that low single digits are good luck to decide on the name of their child. It’s further implied that the noun used in their name may sometimes reflect what is important to daily life in their place of birth.

So far that’s all that’s been explained so far, it’s possible that more will come later in the book but I am impatient so I decided to do some digging. To begin, I started out looking for the historical inspiration that Arkady Martine most likely drew from in crafting the Teixcalaanli Empire. If your instinct was to think “mesoamerican” then congratulations, you and I think a lot alike.

I began in the place where all research begins, Wikipedia. There I found an account of the Mixtec king Eight Deer Jaguar Claw, or 8 Deer for short, who was the only Mixtex king to ever unit them all under one banner. The Mixtecs were later conquered in the 16th century by the Spanish and there are about 800,000 Mixtec still living in Mexico today.

Map showing the region covered by the Mixtec civilization. Imaged sourced from Wikipedia.

So that was a good start and it gave me what I needed to look a little further. As it turns out, the basis for Mixtec names came from the calendar that they used, with individuals being named after the day they were born. So Eight Deer would have been named after the day on which he was born. There are thirteen days and twenty symbols on this calendar. Eventually, I found this site which offers much more context on Mixtec names and mesoamerican culture in general.

Basically, the day a person was born would be their name as we already established, and the individual may then add to their name or change it later in life. The day a person was born was believed to reflect their future including their profession, personality, and even spouse.

So that’s the basis of names used in Arkadi Martine’s A Memory Called Empire. It’s a great bit of worldbuilding on Martine’s part. It makes complete sense that after several millennia parents would stop using the literal date to name their children and instead name them based on their hopes for their child’s future. Depending on how involved Martine chooses to get with the names later in the book, a character’s name could say a lot about what their family expects of them.

I’m not finished reading this book, but my initial impressions are nothing but positive. I really like the worldbuilding based in mesoamerican culture and can’t wait to see other ways in which that history and culture is incorporated.

Have you read A Memory Called Empire? What did you think? Did you find any good resources to learn about the historical inspirations for Arkady’s worldbuilding? Let me know in the comments!

The Seventh Son

Fury of the Seventh Son: The Last Apprentice, Book 13

The other day I decided to try watching a movie that I had forgot exist and I would strongly argue should not exist; Seventh Son. It’s a movie starring Jeff Bridges and others loosely based on The Spook’s Apprentice by Joseph Delaney. Also called The Last Apprentice by us Americans. The books series holds a special place in my heart, I devoured the books in middle and high school and remain a fan to this day. The world of The Last Apprentice is wonderfully constructed. And after all these years I finally read the final book in the series, Furry of the Seventh Son.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. Ten years later I don’t find the books anywhere near as scary as I used to, which is to be expected. But the plot and the worldbuilding are still exemplary.

The best-written part of the series is the protagonist, Tom Ward, he is so incredibly annoying. He is stupid at times, he makes the wrong decisions all the time, but he still does his best. That’s probably the best part of the series. Because at many times throughout the series he keeps things from his master, The Spook, for various reasons, in nearly every instance it turns out that he should have been honest from the beginning. Yes, The Spook doesn’t want to compromise his morals for the greater good, but also Tom never tried to make the case for that option. Because as much as this series highlights the difference between light and dark, but when it comes down to individuals there are a lot of shades of grey.

The Spook, over the course of the series, eventually makes compromises for the greater good. But I think he could have reached that point and a lot of evil could have been averted if Tom had just spoken up and shared what he knows.

But’s that’s one of the great things about this series. Tom was doing the same thing that you or I probably would have done. It’s very easy to say what the right thing to do is, it’s another to actually do it. You and I would probably not do the smart thing if we were in Tom’s shoes.

But I will tell you what the right thing to do is. Read the books. Don’t see the movie. It’s bad. Read the books, you will be glad that you did. While this is certainly a YA series, the story and worldbuilding are hard to beat.

Dan Simmons’ Mystery Box

Mystery can be a great driver of plot and a trap at the same time. J.J Abrams is notorious for using this strategy in Lost and blowing it at the end. The problem is if you set up some huge mystery at the beginning of a narrative you better have a satisfying answer to the mystery by the end. Or do you?

I would argue that you don’t. If you do it right.

Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, Book 1) by [Dan Simmons]

If you have a great answer to the mystery you present to your audience at the beginning then by all means share it, but if you do you better make sure you are very confident in the answer. Your audience will not thank you if your answer fails to live up to their expectations. Remember how disappointed Spongebob was to find out Patrick has just spent the entire episode hiding the string in his secret box?

I am here to argue that sometimes it’s best to leave mysteries unsolved. There is both terror and wonder in the unknown, that’s part of being human, there’s no reason the stories we tell shouldn’t reflect that.

I am using Dan Simmons as an example here because his 1989 science fiction novel “Hyperion” is fantastic. It’s the kind of “genre fiction” that gets literature snobs to lower their barriers. But I think it would have been better if Simmons had never written a sequel. Let me explain.

Hyperion, unsurprisingly, centers around the planet Hyperion. A planet at the edge of known space, one that is not incorporated into the network of gates that allow instantaneous travel between worlds.

Traveling to Hyperion means sacrificing a great deal of time and accepting a certain amount of risk. Many accept this because Hyperion is a planet of mysteries. It is one of the labyrinthine worlds, worlds with great labyrinths constructed by unknown aliens. It is also home to the Shrike and the Time Tombs. Both have been sent back in time for an unknown purpose.

shallow focus photography of gray concrete building
Photo by Sebastian Palomino on Pexels.com

One group of humans, the Shrike Church, believe that the Shrike is a punishment for humanity’s sins and traveling willingly on pilgrimages to Hyperion where most of them will be killed in various horrible ways by the Shrike. It’s strange how the bishops never go themselves, isn’t it?

The protagonists of Hyperion have all been selected for what will probably be the last Shrike pilgrimage. At the start of the book, it is stated that the Time Tombs are opening and that a group of transhumans called Ousters are about to attack the planet. There’s not much hope that the planet will hold out either. None of them are members of the Shrike Church, none of them know exactly why they were selected, all of them have their own reasons for accepting the missions.

The book is a futuristic retelling of the Canterbury Tales. In between chapters that narrate their journey to the planet and their attempts to determine who among them might be a spy, they each share their stories about what led them to accept their place on the pilgrimage.

Through their stories and their motivations, Simmons explores imperialism, artistic integrity, betrayal, love, artificial intelligence, technological reincarnation, fatherhood, and many more themes. In some ways, the book is also a love letter to John Keats.

In the end, despite their differences, they joined hands and walked to their fate. Then the book ends. The series should have ended there too.

photo of people near wooden table
Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

Instead, Simmons continued to write in this universe, which eventually became the Hyperion Cantos. The second book, The Fall of Hyperion, wasn’t that bad. It largely follows an artificial reincarnation of John Keats and much of the book’s events are told through his experiences. But we also see the POVs of the characters from the first novel. This is where the problem arises.

In writing the second novel Simmons had to explain all of the questions that arose in the first. In doing so he brings up a lot of interesting ideas that were totally unprecedented in the first novel. So instead of leaving the mysteries of the first book as mysteries, he chose to answer them with time-traveling agents from the future and messianic powers that came out of nowhere.

The first book was an amazing opportunity to explore multiple stories at once, to get close to deeply flawed characters with mixed motivations for being where they are, and to see them accept the uncertain future in front of them. I think the series would have ended beautifully with just one book. Instead, Simmons decided to keep writing.

That’s not to say that I hated the second book. I enjoyed most of it. Just not as much. I think I would have enjoyed it more if some of the concepts introduced in the first actually mattered in the second. Powers that destroy the Shrike don’t bother me as long as we the readers were given reason to think they might be possible beforehand.

But we weren’t.

I keep looking at the third book on my shelf and I don’t know if I can convince myself to read it. Hyperion is a great book and if it was the only book of the Hyperion Cantos that you read it will likely remain a great book in your eyes. Because the answers provided in the later books simply don’t hold up to the questions posed by the first. If you haven’t read Hyperion yet then you definitely should, but consider skipping the books that follow.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

I admit I have never read a book by Naomi Novik until about a week ago. I didn’t even realize that she was the author of Temeraire, a series that has been on my radar for a while, but I just hadn’t gotten around to picking up yet. That will be changing shortly because I was blown away by how well done A Deadly Education is. Stop reading this review now and come back after you’ve bought a copy.

Done? Good. On with the review.

Like I said, I have never read a book by Naomi Novik until a week ago. I had seen A Deadly Education in bookstores several times and read reviews about it, but the tipping point for me was when I saw a Twitter mutual (Bryanna Gary go follow her) post about how great the book is. So I bought it during one of my monthly therapy shopping sessions at the local book store.

The premise of the book is that it takes place in a somewhat evil magical school. A place with no teachers where students are left on their own for four years, forced to fend for themselves and survive near-constant attacks from monsters intent on devouring them in a myriad of horrific ways. The moment that everyone dreads is graduation when the senior class will be forced to fight their way through the worst of the monsters that couldn’t squeeze their way into the cracks in the school’s wards.

And all that is the best solution the magical community could come up with to protect their children from being preyed upon by the monsters in their closest.

At first glance, the book seems to promise a grimdark setting with a protagonist who is something of an antihero. Don’t get me wrong; this school seems to be a terrible place to live. But the protagonist Galadriel, rather than being an antihero, is someone who has been given every reason to believe that she will become one. Everyone around her seems to dislike her instantly, and she has an unwanted gift for casting spells of mass destruction.

All this has made her bitter and angry, and she tends to lash out at those around her, even on the rare occasions that they do try to be friends. The book is also written in first person, so we get to see that she is fully aware that she is making these mistakes as she makes them. By the end of the book, she finally begins to make friends and even seems to force some of her classmates to become better people in the process or at least try. We also get a look into a deeply fascinating new fantasy setting that includes a school that seems determined to torture its students in an almost loving way.

It’s a good book. Go buy it.

Do Characters Matter?

Of course, they do, but I think that some people assign too much importance to the characters when considering the merits of a given book. You all probably know by now that Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds has been my latest hyper-fixation. On a few occasions, I’ve gone over to Reddit or to the books’ wiki to see if any fanart made depicting the ships or technology in the books. During these trips, I came across a few comments from people whose main criticism of the books concerns the depth of the characters or lack thereof.

Personally, I like the characters, we may not often get to see a detailed view of what is going on inside their heads, but we also don’t need to. The novels and short stories set in the Revelation Space Universe cover a period of time extending out to 40,000 CE. The fastest a ship can go is just below the speed of light. It takes decades to travel between planets, and the characters of the novel face enemies that can tear planets apart. The scale of these stories is just too large for the characters to matter very much. Sure, they play an important role in events, but the effects of their actions will be relatively small in the end.

And there is another reason why we might not completely understand the characters; they are old. Many of the characters have already led extensive lives by the time we meet them. They’ve been traveling the stars for decades. They don’t experience time the way we do. Travel at relativistic speeds will change them; it separates them from everyone they had known before. There isn’t time to see all the past events of their lives, and the motivations of someone who has lived 400 years separated by time and space from everyone they have ever known will have a psychology that is much different than ours.

As examples, I am going to look at three criticisms that I came across online and talk about why I don’t think they are fair.

The Single Mindedness of Dan Sylvest

Dan Sylvest is one of the POV characters in “Revelation Space.” He’s about 200 years old by the time we meet him, and he is the scion of a very wealthy family from the planet of Yellowstone. When we see him, he is first leading and then loses a colony on the world of Resurgam, a colony that he founded to study an extinct alien race known as the Amarantin. There are other things about him, he resents his father Calvin, who he speaks with frequently as a computer simulation, he’s been married a few times, and he has shown a willingness to risk his life and the lives of others in pursuit of his scientific goals. I’ve seen some complain that he does not get much character development in the book and that his wife Pascal is flat and basically just someone for Dan to lecture about his discoveries.

None of these complaints are really that valid. Dan is a POV character, yes, but he is also incredibly arrogant and, as we find out later, driven by an alien memetic virus that has inspired his obsessions in order to push towards a particular goal. In that context, his behaviors and apparent lack of depth make sense. He is someone who makes everything about himself and his work. Of course his wife seems flat, we see things from his POV, and he really just likes to talk at her. Let’s not forget that he was driven by an alien virus that did its best to ensure that he only focused on a single objective. Dan is not a character who is written poorly. He does exactly what the story needs of him.

Ana Khouri’s Lost Husband and her Role as an “Action Girl”

On her home planet of Sky’s Edge, Ana was a soldier; almost everyone was. She and her husband were both soldiers who were wounded, and after they were wounded and brought to orbit for treatment. Things did not end well for the couple after this, as a clerical error caused Ana to be shipped to Yellowstone, a thirty-year round trip that ensured that even if she tried to return home to her husband, he would be either dead or remarried by the time she arrived. When we first meet her, she is working as an assassin and offered a job in which she has to travel to a different planet to kill Dan Sylvest, and in return, she will be reunited with her husband, who, as it turns out, was in hibernation on Yellowstone the entire time. She does not complete her mission because, in the process, she discovers that she has become involved in something much larger than a pair of starstruck lovers. She also realized that her mysterious employer might have lied about their ability to bring her husband back. Some have complained that Ana’s husband rarely comes up for how important he was to her, but it’s also important to remember by the time we meet Ana, she has come to terms with what happened. She has accepted that she will never see him again. He’s basically dead to her. Her husband does come in later books, however, when she initially resists taking a new lover.

Skade and the Night Council

Skade is a conjoiner, one who hears a voice in her head that she believes to be the “Night Council” and extremely classified group within the conjoiners. She is willing to do bad things for good reasons, and the things she does cause respected leaders among the conjoiners like Clavain and Remontoire to defect in order to oppose her. Eventually, this conflict evolves into a personal vendetta against Clavain. Some have said that Skade’s death was anticlimactic and that her inclusion in the story introduced unresolved plotlines. But I think that was the point. Skade may have been trying to save her fellow conjoiners, but in doing so, she strayed far from what a conjoiner was supposed to be, and it destroyed her.

Conclusion

Finally, my last argument against the criticism that these characters are flat is that a single book in the series might cover many decades. By necessity, a great deal of interactions between characters is going to take place off-screen. I’m okay with that, and personally, I think Reynolds does a great job deciding what needs to be shown and what does not.

Army of the Dead Review

Netflix and Zack Snyder teamed up to make a movie! And I actually liked it quite a bit.

The plot is simple. Zombies overran Las Vegas. Years later, it is still overrun by zombies kept trapped in the city by a makeshift wall. But that’s all about to change because the government has decided to evacuate the refugee/quarantine camps around the city and nuke the whole place.

Pretty good idea…maybe…probably…right?

Anyway, the bombing is imminent, but at the last minute, the protagonist (don’t worry about the names; they’re all very forgettable) is approached by a wealthy businessman who wants him to assemble a team to retrieve two million dollars in cash under his old casino. In exchange, our hero will get fifty million dollars to divide among his team as he sees fit. There is, of course, more to this offer than meets the eye, but we don’t need to get into that now.

The movie was a lot of fun, for a few reasons.

  1. No convoluted plots. It’s a simple action/zombie movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
  2. Not all of the zombies are mindless shamblers. Some of them are organized and are seen using tools.
  3. There is a zombie tiger.

Overall I’d say watch it. It’s exactly what I want in an action movie; action. There are no unnecessary side plots, no boring romances. It’s not perfect, there are certainly a few things that could have been done better, but it’s worth a watch.

Beyond the Aquila Rift by Alastair Reynolds versus Beyond the Aquila Rift from Love, Death & Robots

I was torn when I did this for Zima Blue. I understand that movies will always be different from the stories they are based on. These differences are completely understandable in many cases. Some things don’t translate well, would be too expensive to depict, or need to be cut for the sake of time. In Love, Death & Robots, the screenwriters only had about ten minutes for each story. That isn’t a lot of time to portray the complexity of even a short story. With that in mind, I think Netflix could have done a lot better with this one.

Beyond the Aquilla Rift is about a starship that finds itself light years off course. The ship’s captain emerges from hibernation to find that he has traveled so far for so long that everyone he ever knew back home is long dead. But it’s not all bad because at this remote outpost, he meets an old flame by the name of “Greta.” Greta changes her story a few times but eventually tells him that her ship became stranded in this remote locale through a mishap similar to what stranded his. This is also a lie. His ship is, in fact, the first human ship to ever arrive at this remote station. The captain, we learn, never woke up from hibernation. Everything he experienced was a simulation fed to him by the entity that took care of all the lost souls that came to it.

The animation LDR’s version is gorgeous, and like all good sci-fi, the ending both answers questions and introduces new ones. But I can’t bring myself to hold both versions at the same level as I did with Zima Blue. They are different, and that is okay, but the adaptation makes too many jumps. The protagonist’s realization that things are not as they seem is far too abrupt. Rather than spend as much time as they did on a gratuitous sex scene, I think the writers would have done the story better justice if they had shown us some of the inconsistencies in the simulation, the little details that hinted that something just wasn’t right.

If I had to give both a rating, I would say the LDR’s version would get a 2/5, and the original written version would get a 3.5/5. I am not a fan of this kind of story in general, but I think it is well done. LDR’s version is visually stunning, but it doesn’t show us enough to really understand the predicament the protagonist finds himself in.

I hope you liked this review. Because I just found out that all the short stories that inspired season one is available as a single anthology, so there are going to be a lot more posts like this.

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

Revelation Space (The Inhibitor Trilogy Book 1) by [Alastair Reynolds]
Book One of the Inhibitor Trilogy

Lately, I have been listening to a lot of audiobooks. It’s helped to make tedious tasks more enjoyable, and it has helped me cross A LOT of books off of my to-be-read list. A few of these books have been Alastair Reynolds’ Inhibitor Trilogy. These books have me obsessed.

For those who don’t know, Alastair Reynolds is a prolific science fiction author who studied astrophysics with the European Space Agency. He holds a doctorate in astronomy and his experience shines through in his writing.

He has an incredibly engaging style that he peppers with just the right amount of scientific jargon to make his settings convincing. He also does an amazing job of bringing seemingly disparate story threads together at the end in ways so obvious in retrospect.

I could go on and on about why I like these books. Instead, I want to talk about one thing that Reynolds does very well. Conflict. Or should I call it fluff? You know those fight scenes that drag on too long or the infiltrations that seem a little too contrived? I know I can’t be the only one, which is why I was so happy when Reynolds chose to fade to black for those scenes that another author might instead drag along for a chapter or two.

That’s not to say that these books don’t have fight scenes or are free of violence, but Reynolds seems to know exactly how much of the fight we need to be shown, and much of the violence in the series takes place between starships. Starships so far apart that a commander will not know if their attack was successful for several hours. In a book like this, conflict is best shown through the thoughts and worries of the commanders rather than the minutia that many authors get stuck in.

Fantastic books. 5/5. Go read.

Five Months with the Drop Alt

There are a lot of mechanical keyboards out there. Many of them are “for gamers,” and you can find a keyboard with that gamer aesthetic for under $100. However, if you start looking for enthusiast keyboards, the prices can quickly get into hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Why are these so expensive? It’s really a matter of supply and demand. Enthusiast mechanical keyboards are a niche market. Many designs are either made by small companies or by enthusiasts. Many of these kits also need to be assembled by the user. The selection and soldering of components can take a lot of time, knowledge, and tools. So if you have a few thousand dollars you can pay someone to build it for you.

Luckily, as the hobby gains steam, there are more and more options for people who want to dip their toes in the mechanical keyboard ocean. One of these options is the Drop Alt.

What is the Alt?

The Drop Alt is a hot-swappable mechanical keyboard, which means that the switches can be added and taken away without soldering. They just pop into place. As soon as I learned this, I was sold, I ordered the high-profile version without switches, but a low-profile variant is available as well.

Once I had the board picked out I went with switches. I knew I wanted linear switches, switches that press down without a built in “clicky” sound of a tactile bump. I settled on the Gateron reds. These switches were great, but I eventually swapped them out for Gateron blacks. This was just due to personal preference, I knew by this point that I like linear switches but I wanted a switch with more actuation force. This is the great thing about the board being hot-swappable. If you aren’t sure what kind of switch you like you can try another.

The keycaps I picked out were the the Drop + Matt3o MT3 /dev /tty keycap set.

I picked these out because I liked the color scheme and I have been extremely happy with them. The PBT plastic that they are made of is durable and the keycaps themselves are nicely contoured for comfort during extended writing sessions.

Mods

One thing I knew going into this is that some enthusiasts have complains about the sounds that some of the keys on the Alt make. Most of these issues relate to the stabalizers, the metal bars that help hold larger keys like shift and enter steady. They default stabalizers on the Alt have been known to rattle. Now, this may or may not bother you, but eventually, it started to bother me, and so I decided to make a few modifications.

The first thing I did was lube all of the stabilizers so that they would move more smoothly. I used a small paintbrush and some Teflon grease I keep around for my trombone slide, but many recommended some kind of krytox grease.

Then I did the bandaid mod. This was considerably more annoying to do, so I only did it on the space bar, which was the one that still annoyed me the most when I was done lubing the stabilizers. The bandaid mod is simple. All you do is cut the pads off of a couple of bandaids and place them between the base of the stabilizers and the circuit board to cushion the stabilizer’s impact against the circuit board when you type.

These mods might sound complex, but they really aren’t. I just made them difficult because I did them impulsively and didn’t really think about what my plan was before I started.

Is the Drop Alt Worth Buying?

In my opinion, absolutely. I wanted an excellent keyboard, one that I could customize to my liking and occasionally tinker with. I was not disappointed. If you don’t want to dip your toes into assembling your keyboard, you might be interested in something like the RK61, but I whole heartily recommend the drop alt.

Buy the Alt if you want:

  • To experiment with different types of switches.
  • To customize your typing experience without a soldering iron.
  • To have a quality mechanical keyboard that you will likely enjoy for years to come.
  • To have something that you can both enjoy and occasionally tinker with.

If you go with the high-profile variant I recommend getting some kind of wrist rest as well to enhance your typing experience.