Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Recent Books

The Janus Affair, by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris

It's another adventure for agents Wellington Books and Eliza Braun of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, after Phoenix Rising, their first adventure. More witty banter, more dodging the day-to-day jobs the pair are actually assigned to, more uncovering fiendish plots that threaten to overthrow the empire. The trouble with sequels is that, should they veer too far from the original, readers who enjoyed the first book may not enjoy the second. Conversely, however, should the sequel be too similar to the first book, readers have no reason to continue the series. Unfortunately, my reaction to The Janus Affair was that it fell into the second category. A relatively brief book might have survived this repetition, but The Janus Affair clocks in at over 400 pages. I found myself bogged down in details and unable to finish.

The Twelve, by Justin Cronin

Another sequel, this time book two of a trilogy that began with The Passage. A hundred years earlier, a virus went out of control, converting thirteen prisoners - the ur-vampire Zero and his twelve disciples -  into vampire-like creatures who, with their not-quite-vampire followers, destroyed civilization in the United States. Only a few communities survived, and continue defending themselves against attacks from those who feed on blood. In the second book, we are introduced to a new community, this one in Texas, get more detail about the virus outbreak and the days immediately following the outbreak, and learn of a large community in Iowa that is run by an oligarchy of government survivors from the outbreak, themselves living an extended life through the consumption of virus-tainted blood.

Both The Passage and The Twelve are sprawling books, with numerous characters whose lives intertwine. It's often difficult keeping track of the minor characters and even some of the major ones. The Twelve also suffers from the "middle book of the trilogy" problems - it's hard to have a satisfactory conclusion to the book when the purpose of the book is to set up the final confrontation in the third.
Still, Cronin is a good writer, and I found myself drawn into the plot, even when the action slowed to a crawl. I'm looking forward to the conclusion, due out in 2014.

Monday, January 28, 2013

New Babbage Gallery of Art

Mr. Vic Mornington has opened an art gallery in Clockhaven, just steps from the docks.

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The gallery features images of New Babbage.

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On the first floor is the featured artist of the month.

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Some of the art is for sale.

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The second floor contains older works. Babbage is lovely at any time of the year, but particularly so in winter, making this an ideal time to see the new gallery.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Aether Salon - LEA

This month's Aether Salon featured a field trip! Dr. Rowan Derryth led the Salon in a tour of a new exhibit sponsored by the Linden Endowment for the Arts, entitled "A Rusted Development."

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Rowan Derryth

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The audience gathers

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A billboard for the exhibit

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More of the audience
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Still others in attendance 

Miss Bookworm Hienrichs introduced the speaker: "Rowan Derryth is the virtual persona of an actual art & design historian based in the UK. She writes regularly on virtual art in Second Life in her column ‘Ekphrasis’, available on the Prim Perfect blog. She is also the Curator for Avalon Arts Community, is a judge for the University of Western Australia (UWA) 3D Art Challenge, and is currently an advisor for the Linden Endowment for the Arts (LEA). She has spoken at the Aether Salon before, regaling us in November of 2010 with a wonderful discussion of Aestheticism. Welcome, Rowan!"

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Dr. Derryth replied, "I’d like to thank you all for escaping the relative safety of New Babbage today, to take part on this little field trip adventure to our abandoned city here. I do think our journey should be relatively safe though... I mean, what could possibly go wrong? Actually, this talk/visit will be a bit different because I’ll be talking about this in a mostly ‘OOC’ manner. While many artists here take on virtual personas, we do consider the art that is made here ‘real’, even it cannot be touched. So what I thought we could do is I’ll briefly explain a bit about how this exhibit came to be, then we will do a quick whistle-stop tour down to PJ’s lovely underwater gallery where we can pause and I’ll tell you a little bit about the LEA, then have a question-answer session….I do not fully participate in the Steampunk communities - although as many of you know I like to ‘dip my boot in’ - but it is an aesthetic I very much enjoy.... These themes relate to my academic research interests in 19th century art and design (some of which I’ve talked about at previous Salons and events), alongside those of urban renewal, and dystopic/utopic narratives. As such, I envisioned an installation where there exists a main build – a ‘development’ – that had fallen into ruin. It is subsequently rescued and repopulated by a selection of artists whose work loosely embraces similar themes. I knew I wanted to curate a group show, and I loved the idea of a kind of abandoned space that could be occupied, populated even, by some of my favourite artists. …. It is also a credit to Haveit [Neox] that some of the very finest jumped at the chance to be part of this work. Our ‘Rusted Artists’ are an impressive list: Rose Borchovski, Artistide Despres, Claudia222 Jewell, Bryn Oh, Scottius Polke, Ziki Questi, PJ Trenton, Blue Tsuki, Stephen Venkman, Eliza Wierwight, and Trill Zapatero."

Mr. Neox was introduced. He said, "Rowan Derryth truly surprised me with an invitation to build a sim for an exhibit. Her idea was to present a rusted environment that spoke of an abandoned city: a place where artists would come to revitalize it. I was immediately hooked by the idea and very excited because a passion of mine is constructing cities. Expanding on Rowan’s premise, I wrote a background story to give it a history. The fabled merchant city that rode atop the back of a gigantic whale met with a calamity that ended its existence abruptly. In the middle of the ocean, a horrific storm caused two huge ships carrying toxic chemicals to collide into the swimming whale city. The whale and all the populace died in the flood of chemicals that saturated the waves. The whale turned to bones, and the city to rust, it was nearly half a century before this city adrift was discovered. An expedition of artists, searching for land to build an art colony, came upon the decomposing city. With the intent to regenerate the place, they set to work by first towing to safe harbor the floating mass. Each artist then undertook their vision. The empty shell of the city suddenly filled in and expanded as each artist found their niche in the Rusted Development. No longer at the mercy of invisibility, the city humbles its rusted fa├žade to the highlights of the art within."

Dr. Derryth again: "So basically all the artists were given the theme idea, then left to make whatever they like. When Haveit had the build largely done, they came over and scouted for spots to put their work. It was definitely a challenge, but they group worked beautifully together. I think the result is a bit chaotic, but in a way that really works for our idea."

We saw a few pieces of the exhibit: Scottius Polke’s ‘Eden Oxide’, Eliza Wierwight's 'A Fractured Fairytale,' and PJ Trenton's exhibit, 'Sunken Treasure,' consisting, as he said, of "images of places that are no longer around...lost as the inhabitants of the city were."

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I did not have enough time to explore the exhibit (and the lag was a formidable obstacle in any event!), so I will be sure to return.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Changes in the Steamlands

Via Mr. Danko Whitfield, news comes about two corners of the Steamlands.

First, "the Armada Breakaway sim will close at the end of the month," a sad piece of news.

Second, the original Steelhead sim will close - albeit temporarily. Writes Mr. Whitfield:
It turns out that of the seven-region Steelhead estate, this one sim belongs to its first owner, Kattryn Severine, while the other six belong to TotalLunar Eclipse who runs the entire Steelhead estate with his wife, Tensai Hilra. Severine has gone AWOL. Her avatar has not logged into SL since May of 2011 and, according to the announcement today from Lunar, Severine has stopped paying Linden Lab for the sim. 
But the good news is that Lunar and Tensai are shopping for another sim to replace Steelhead’s prime region and will rebuild it, keeping the seven-region estate intact under one owner.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"I'll get you out of this, I promise" - Doctor Who, Series 2

I feel a little awkward writing these mini-reviews or random thoughts, or whatever they may be, on Doctor Who, as I'm not really qualified to discuss the show. Unlike the serious fans - the fanatical fans, to be redundant - who have studied the earlier incarnation of the series and/or pored over every frame of the new version of the series, I'm a newcomer, still working my way to the Matt Smith era. Nonetheless, I've been spending a good chunk of my free time at this, so I may as well report back.

Episode 0: The Christmas Invasion

The Doctor, having regenerated at the end of the previous season, spends much of this episode in bed, recuperating from the effects of the regeneration. An alien race, the Sycorax, trigger a device that causes a third of the Earth's population to fall into a hypnotic state and walk to a precipice; the Sycorax leader demands that the Earth surrender or he will order the hostages to plunge to their deaths. Rose Tyler, Rose's annoying mother, and Mickey Smith soldier on without the Doctor, as does Prime Minister Harriet Jones. The Doctor wakes up (with a good restorative tea), fights the Sycorax leader, loses a hand but is able to use regeneration energy to grow another - and the hand sticks around for the next three seasons until it is needed by the plot - and ultimately defeats the Sycorax leader. He banishes the rest of the Sycorax. However, PM Jones ordered Torchwood to destroy the alien ship against the Doctor's orders.

One would think these Christmas specials would have more time and attention lavished on them, including the plot, but in reality the opposite seems true. This one wasn't bad, but, lacking the Doctor for much of the episode, the piece seemed slightly underwhelming.

Episode 1: New Earth

The Doctor and Rose travel to the planet New Earth in the year five billion and twenty-three. In a hospital they find cat-like nurses curing incurable diseases, and the Doctor's old friend, the Face of Boe. Rose gets kidnapped and is taken to the Lady Cassandra, who survived from the previous season's episode involving the death of the original Earth in the year five billion. Cassandra has a device that swaps her mind with Rose's. The Doctor has to get Cassandra to give Rose back and to understand the miracle cures.

The second of the two main plot points isn't bad, even if the resolution is a little sketchy on the science, but one episode with Lady Cassandra was more than enough.

Episode 2: Tooth and Claw

The Doctor misses landing in 1979 by a century, so he and Rose find themselves in rural Victorian Scotland. Queen Victoria herself is passing through the area, to spend the night at the Torchwood Estate. Inside the estate, a group of rogue monks have taken over, and a werewolf is on the prowl.
This is one of the best episodes of the series: tense, and the plot elements are all well-integrated. We also get the back story of the Torchwood Institute, which infuses the rest of the season.

Episode 3: School Reunion

An amusing but slight plot, with bat-like creatures taking over the school in order to solve an algorithm that would give them control of time and space. The episode sees the return of popular companion Sarah Jane Smith, and she and Rose get into a bragging match. Rose gets some insight into what being the Doctor's companion really does to a person. (The idea that Rose was unaware that the Doctor had previous companions seems farfetched, however.)

Episode 4: The Girl in the Fireplace

Another excellent episode. The Doctor, Mickey, and Rose find an abandoned spaceship in the 51st century. They look through a fireplace and see a young girl in 18th century clothing. The fireplace is a portal between the ship and the bedroom, though time passes more quickly on the 18th century side. The girl grows up to be Louis XV's mistress, Madame de Pompadour. She sees the Doctor as someone who shows up briefly then disappears for years. The episode is one of the few sexy ones, too. The explanation for why the automatons were harassing Madame de Pompadour was unconvincing, however.

Episodes 5 and 6: Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel

A two-part story line, in which the Doctor and Rose travel to a parallel Earth - one in which Rose's father is not only still alive but has made a fortune in one of his crazy get-rich-quick schemes. Everyone has a pair of EarPods (heh), which downloads news and information directly into the brain. The developer of the EarPods, John Lumic, has a plan to convert humans into cybernetic beings - with himself as their immortal leader, and has experimented with the homeless. Mickey Smith meets his alternate universe counterpart, who is a member of a counter-revolutionary group.

I liked this story. Mickey finally gets to feel useful (despite the help he's given the Doctor in previous episodes, he's always felt like a fifth wheel). Rose gets to see her parents together, only to find that in this alternate reality they have no children. Still, she's tempted to stay with this version of the father she never knew.

Episode 7: The Idiot's Lantern

The Doctor and Rose arrive in London on the day before Queen Elizabeth II's coronation. The entire neighborhood is buying television sets in order to watch the event. However, people who watch the television sometimes end up faceless, a victim of the Wire, an entity stuck in the television wavelength who sucks energy out of those watching. The Wire plans on using the coronation as an opportunity to get enough energy to return to a physical form.

The commentary on television is amusing, and the Doctor shows his manic side, but the episode is not one of the stronger ones. I did like the MacGyver-like building of a VCR, in 1953, from spare parts - Betamax, for better or worse.

Episodes 8 and 9: The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit

Also a two-part story line, taking place mainly in a dark, sweaty station on a planet at the edge of a black hole - the planet shouldn't be able to continue to exist, hence the episode title. The Doctor sees some untranslatable symbols - something that shouldn't happen, as the TARDIS can translate all languages. They investigate further, discovering the Ood, a servant race, along with the human crew members. As the crew drills into the planet, one of the crew exhibits signs of being possessed by an evil force. An earthquake causes the TARDIS to fall into the deep drilling pit, so the Doctor and Rose are forced to stay on the planet. The first episode-and-a-half was good, while meeting Satan was somewhat underwhelming.

Episode 10: Love and Monsters

An episode told mainly from the perspective of a young man (and ELO fan!) who is obsessed with the Doctor, who connects with similar-minded people. The group - originally intended to investigate Doctor-related phenomena - turns into a social club until it is visited by a man who points out that the group has lost its original cause. Out of an initially undisclosed ulterior motive, he redirects the group toward finding the Doctor. One by one, however, members of the group start disappearing.

Ugh. I know this was supposed to be funny, but it just wasn't. The Doctor-obsessed fans weren't all that interesting, the people-eating alien was comical but not terribly interesting, and, most of all, the Doctor was again missing in action for most of the episode.

Episode 11: Fear Her

Intending to see the London 2012 Olympics, the Doctor and Rose land in a housing estate near where the Olympic torch is to pass by shortly. Several children have disappeared, and when the Doctor investigates the culprit appears to be a 12-year-old girl, who draws pictures of people and animals who are then trapped in her drawings.

Good, but not great. The highlight was seeing the Doctor running with the Olympic torch, though having him bring it into the stadium was over the top.

Episodes 12 and 13: Army of Ghosts/Doomsday

Rose opens the episode with a narration, saying, "This is the story of how I died." The episode then begins in the present (2006) London estate where Jackie Tyler lives. The Doctor and Rose find that "ghosts" have been appearing worldwide, but for part of the day only. Rather than dead relatives coming back to visit the living, as Jackie and others believe, the Doctor realizes these are beings attempting to cross into our universe. He traces the origin to Canary Wharf, to what turns out to be the Torchwood Institute. An impenetrable object came through the breach. Scientists are trying to use the breach in the universe, through which the ghosts came, to develop an inexhaustible energy source. They open the breach once more, allowing the Cyberman army to come through. The object opens, revealing Daleks.

Despite the excess (pairing the Cybermen and the Daleks?) and the hand-waving plotting, the double episode was very good. And who could resist the poignant ending, separating Rose from the Doctor, seemingly forever?

Tennant versus Eccleston 

I realize it's a cliche to get into the "which Doctor is better" discussion, really I do. After seeing Series 1, with Christopher Eccleston, I opined that Eccleston was excellent in the role, playing the Doctor with a combination of humor and anger. I still think it's too bad he didn't stay in the series for a few more seasons. David Tennant is a very different sort of actor. Much of the time he's goofier - a carefree sort, or, as I came to believe, a world-weary man with a carefree facade. (Sometimes the mask slips. In a Series 4 episode, "The Waters of Mars," the Doctor is told "Nobody should have that power" over time and over the fate of people. His response: "Tough.")* And just as Eccleston had his catch phrase - "Fahn-TAS-tic!" - so does Tennant: "I'll get you out of this, I promise." (His related catch phrase: "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." And he does seem sorry; unfortunately for him, he's sorry a lot.) Both good in their own way.

* Yes, my viewing is far ahead of my writing.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Fangs for Nothing

The second meeting of the discussion series, "Magic, Monsters and Other Worlds: The Fantastic in Victorian Literature" focused on Bram Stoker's classic novel Dracula.

The book attracted a larger-than-usual set of attendees, and the discussion was wide-ranging, from the tension between the new, technological world of the 1890s and the old, folklore-dense world that the Count comes from, to the sexualization of the "voluptuous" Lucy, to the effect that Stoker's Irishness had on the depiction of the English in the novel. Dame Kghia and Sir JJ reprised their roles as facilitators of the discussion, while the rest of us rambled on.

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Next month's topic will be Mary Shelley's earlier novel, Frankenstein. I suspect that discussion will be lively as well.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A New Year

The weak winter sun rose and moved across the sky. Eventually, a beam of sunlight penetrated the front window of my house in Mayfair. The warmth and bright light brought me back to life, and gingerly I opened one eye. Then quickly shut it again, the pain in my head signaling "Danger! Danger!"

A few moments later I tried again, opening my eyes a mere slit. The room spun for a moment before it stabilized. I tried to stand, but my balance was still napping. Slowly, I turned me head left and right, assessing the situation.

To my left: an overturned end table, several champagne glasses on the floor and a sticky pool trickling toward the corner of the room. To my right: two wingback chairs, one on its side, and a large dining table, covered with half-eaten food, half-consumed champagne, empty champagne bottles, and streamers and hats. This looked like my front room, though after a hurricane swept through.
Conclusion: I had hosted a New Year's Day party and this was the aftermath. I groaned, both at the pain in my head and the thought of trying to clean the mess.

The mantle clock started to chime. One, two, three. I clasped my head. Four, five, six. Never have champagne. Well, not more than a bottle at once. Seven, eight, nine, ten. The noise stopped, and I breathed a sigh of relief at the silence.

Well, ten o'clock New Year's morning. Not so bad, really. With great effort, I stood and teetered to the door, where the day's paper had been shoved through the slot. I looked at the date. January 2, 18__. I've been out for an entire day? Good Lord, that must have been some party. I staggered to the kitchen where I found a glass that did not look positively deadly and consumed a quart of water. This was going to be one hell of a year.