Finished the new book tonight. Just sayin'.
In a daring move, Disney released its contribution to the series of Jumanji films just one week before the release of Columbia’s newest adaptation of the beloved children’s book. One might think two Jumanji films in a single month would be overkill, but this film sets itself apart from the others with a surprising twist: the appearance of Luke Skywalker.
It’s the Jedi Knight’s first appearance since J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens, and Mark Hamill gives a command performance. Die-hard fans were thrilled to see him appear in The Force Awakens, and Hamill himself said he was disappointed not to have a speaking role in that film. His appearance there was the Teaser to End All Teasers, and his surprise appearance in The Last Jumanji does not disappoint. He steals every scene he’s in, and we are left wishing the entire film were about him.
Otherwise the movie delivers everything one would expect from a Jumanji movie: silly romps with giant CGI animals, a saccharine romance to keep pre-teens entertained, and cute children who step in as dei ex machina to save the day for our heroes. The children are endearing scamps in the style of Newsies, though instead of contributing to the plot they distract from it. Then again, anyone who wants to see yet another installment of a movie based on a nonexistent board game probably isn’t all that interested in plot.
What they come for is digitally rendered wildlife, and on that count The Last Jumanji does not disappoint. The lovable porg are the crossbreed of penguin and guinea pig that every youngster would love to keep as a pet. The vulpix are an exotic vision of what might happen if foxes evolved from rock candy. And the massive faithers, a cross between racehorse and pet bunny, are—disappointingly—the film’s action highlight.
The Last Jumanji needs their Disneyfied stampede because every other action sequence is a letdown. The agonizingly slow space-chase feels like Mad Max minus the action sequences and cool cars, and ultimately it distracts from the CGI critters that children come to see. It’s too hard for kids to follow the obscure storyline of Finn and Rose, which ultimately has no bearing on the film. Now and then they ram a spacecraft full speed into something-or-other—hoping it will save lives, strangely enough—but apart from these gratuitous thrills, the two add nothing to the film. In fact, if their scenes were cut out entirely, literally nothing about the plot would change.
In the end, most adults will find Rian Johnson’s contribution to the Jumanji film universe scattered and disappointing. But children will delight in the furry fun-fest and die-hard Star Wars fans will get thrill after thrill from Luke Skywalker, who hasn’t spoken a word since 1983’s Return of the Jedi. He is arguably the most eagerly anticipated character in film history, and Hamill delivers what may well be the single greatest performance of his career. The Jedi Master truly is masterful.
For that reason the film is aptly—if boldly—titled. This may well the last Jumanji, despite the fact that the fourth installment in the series opens just six days after this film’s release. It is unlikely that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson can outshine Hamill’s command performance with nothing more than his trademark eyebrow-raise. Rian Johnson and his fantasy hybrids clear the (admittedly low) bar set by the Jumanji franchise, but it is Luke Skywalker who sets the standard by which all future Jumanjis must be measured.
Passed a important milestone this week: people I've never met before are reading the new book. They are in the publishing business. This isn't what you'd call a big deal, but it's the sort of thing that has to happen before anything like a big deal can happen.
So that's cool. Milestone reached, and passed, and now it's back down into the cave to write.
The first 300 pages of the new project went to my wonderful agent, Cameron McClure, who is also the best beta reader I know. Last week I heard back: she thinks it's great.
I can't tell you how glad I am to hear that. Cameron and I signed on together after she read Daughter of the Sword. Because she liked that book, the probability of her liking Year of the Demon and Disciple of the Wind was pretty high. They do form a trilogy, after all. Whether she'd like the new project was, at least in my mind, very much in doubt.
I'm one of those writers who never has any idea how good a piece is while I'm working on it. Call it self-doubt, or a need for validation, or exactly the right amount of humility a writer ought to have in order to write the best book possible. I don't know what it is. All I know is that when Cameron thinks something needs work, it needs work, and when she thinks something is good, it's pretty damn good. (Take a look at some of the authors she represents. They're pretty damn good.)
So the new book needs work -- all drafts do -- but on the whole it's looking good. This, of course, means I won't be on the blog for a while, as it's back to full steam ahead on this project. I'm on Twitter more, if you want to keep in touch.
I'm pressing ahead full steam on the next novel, which means the blog is going to be on hiatus for a bit. Please stand by.
ETA: The first 100 pages are going to my agent soon. Looking forward to having another pair of eyes on this thing!
So I saw Batman v Superman last night. Ugh.
I considered it my civic duty. As bad as all the reviews have been—and they undersell just how bad this stinker is—we do live in the democracy of the dollar. I think a big opening weekend gross for this film is our best shot at getting a decent superhero film out of DC comics in the future. So I went.
This movie is a lifeless, shambling zombie that just won’t die. I don’t like speaking ill of the dead (or the undead, I guess), so instead I’ll focus on the one character in the whole two-and-a-half-hour death march that shows some spark: Wonder Woman.
It turns out she’s the perfect case study for director Zack Snyder, because everything he gets right about her is everything he gets wrong about the rest of the film. For one thing, she’s the only character to have fun. If there’s a future to DC Comics filmdom, Wonder Woman will be its Thor. She understands the joy of the worthy opponent, of being outmatched and outmuscled, of being well and truly walloped.
She’s also mysterious, while everyone else is just baffling. Snyder doesn’t seem to understand the difference. He invites questions about all of the characters, and that’s a good first step, but few of the questions are interesting and most of them are left unanswered. Mystery requires intriguing questions (so not, for instance, “Why does Lex Luthor care about Batman at all?”) that actually get satisfactory answers (so not, “Maybe he wants a proxy to fight Superman, though then we’d have to explain why he tries so hard to keep Kryptonite out of Batman’s hands…”).
I can’t say Wonder Woman’s moral motivations are clear, but at least they’re not totally self-refuting. That’s not true of anyone else. This film is supposed to be a moral drama pitting Superman’s idealism versus Batman’s grim justice. Instead we’re left with Super-utilitarianism versus Bat-utilitarianism, and neither of them is all that good at the utilitarian calculus. Both of them kill indiscriminately, and Batman’s only edge on Superman seems to be that he doesn’t claim otherwise. (Superman flat-out lies about it.)
By contrast, Wonder Woman is the only hero to show any concern for civilian casualties. Superman spews heat-vision willy-nilly, throws bad guys through inhabited buildings, and generally lays waste to any urban center around him. His most egregious kill comes almost as soon as he steps onstage: we all know he’s faster than a speeding bullet, yet instead of plucking said bullet out of the air he chooses to bash down walls with the shooter. Batman shows the same disregard for human life (and with a particular penchant for machine guns and high explosives, no less, making him more like the Punisher than the Batman we all know and love). Compare these reckless testosterone junkies to Wonder Woman, who fights with sword in hand—a deadly weapon, so she’s ready to kill, but only those she can stand with toe-to-toe.
Wonder Woman is also the only hero in the film not to be vexed by disjointed dream sequences. All of these raise more questions than they answer, and they all hint at the sequels Snyder wants to but can no longer be allowed to direct. Fans who know what Darkseid’s parademons are and who know the Flashpoint storyline are the only ones to have any hope of recognizing what the hell these scenes are about, and all of them will agree that it’s way too early to even give a hint in that direction. One movie at a time, folks.
You’d have thought it was obvious that a superhero movie ought to be fun, that the hero ought to have some mystery to her, that we should discover the truths underlying the mysteries, and that the hero ought to be, you know, heroic. Wonder Woman is the only one who’s a hit on all counts. The real tragedy is that she only gets seven minutes of screen time, less than five actually in costume doing Wonder-Womany stuff.
In all, BvS feels not like an action movie but like an early stage in the storyboarding process. If I had my druthers, the final draft would eliminate the jibber-jabbering Lex Luthor completely, and it also wouldn’t have the most important plot point turn on the fact that the two quasi-heroes both have mothers names Martha. Most importantly, it wouldn’t take itself so goddamn seriously. It would learn a thing or two from Wonder Woman.
Why idiotic pseudo-science matters, and why reason is losing the war against it, as explained by lions and rhinos
This is the time of year when media outlets will list their top stories of 2015. Cecil will probably make the list. You remember him: he’s the lion who was killed in a dentist-involved shooting this July. You probably don’t remember Nola or Sudan—not unless you really like rhinos, anyway. Nola and Sudan are more important than Cecil in every respect, but so far I haven’t found them in anyone’s top stories of 2015.
At the beginning of the year there were five northern white rhinos left alive on the planet, all in captivity. One of them, Nola, died this November. Of the remaning four, only one is male. His name is Sudan, and he lives in central Kenya in the Ol Pejeta conservancy, along with two females of his species. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll ever impregnate either of them—he’s 42 years old, fully a decade beyond his best breeding years—but even so, the conservancy is doing its utmost to protect him. Bodyguards with assault rifles follow him day and night. He’s also had his horn cut off. This isn’t to protect his bodyguards, but rather to protect Sudan himself from pseudoscience.
In China there is a folk belief that rhino horn has medicinal properties—most notably as a remedy for erectile dysfunction, though these days cancer has been added to the list. (By “these days” I mean sometime in the past century; Chinese folk beliefs are very, very old.) This belief in the curative powers of ground rhino horn propagated, along with many other aspects of traditional Chinese culture, throughout southeast Asia. The upshot, as far as Sudan is concerned, is that roughly a third of the world’s men have access to markets where ground rhino horn is sold as an herbal variant of Viagra.
This is why Sudan is the last remaining male of his species, why the Javanese rhino is also nearing extinction, and why rhino poaching in South Africa is up 18% this year.
Even this understates the point. This is how the Guardian put it:
So what’s to be done?
If you’re a rhino poacher, you could start by selling pretty much anything other than rhino horn. Bonemeal is cheap. Cement dust is even cheaper. Both of them are exactly as effective as ground rhino horn for curing erectile dysfunction.
Of course, not many rhino poachers will be reading this. Among my non-poaching readership there will be some who find my thesis offensive. Maybe you’re one of them. Maybe you want to say it’s not my place to criticize the traditional beliefs of other cultures. As a philosopher my only response is, “Sure it is, and it’s your place too.” It seems to me that a basic dictum of intellectual responsibility is to critically evaluate the pros and cons of anything you like. I think any intellectually responsible adult ought to be doing this on a daily basis.
I’ll place traditional Chinese beliefs about rhino horns on par with contemporary American beliefs about the dangers of vaccinating children. Neither of these belief sets has the slightest basis in scientific evidence—in fact, all of the available evidence indicates that these beliefs are patently false—and both of these belief sets cause grievous harm to innocent parties.
Yet Cecil the lion is the one to make the list of 2015’s top news stories. Conservationists might point out that there’s more at stake with Cecil if only because his species still exists in the wild and might still be saved from extinction. The northern white rhino has no chance. Genetically it’s already finished; now we’re just waiting for the last four bearers of those genes to keel over. I agree, but I think there’s a larger point to be made.
Here’s why Nola and Sudan are more important than Cecil: because it’s in the nature of celebrities to fade into obscurity. If Cecil’s death had brought his species into the broader conversation—if he’d become not a celebrity but a symbol—then he’d be on par with Nola and Sudan. Instead we saw legislators pay lip service to conservation efforts by making it harder to import some parts of some trophy animals into some countries. Whoop-dee-doo.
This is what’s really frustrating to me as a philosopher, and why I’m basically a pessimist at heart. Idiotic pseudo-science is winning the war against real live scientific science on too many fronts. One reason it’s winning is that stupidity is easier than intelligence. Make ten intelligent decisions in a row and one stupid decision can undo all of them. Make ten stupid decisions in a row and one intelligent decision may be no remedy at all.
So maybe this is the best solution I can offer: if you’re a millennial who just graduated from college into a lousy job market, become the Warby Parker of rhino poaching. Sell powdered rhino horn online at discount prices. Make it look legit by getting yourself a Zimbabwean cell phone number and a web site ending in .zw. Advertise the hell out of it all over Asia, then sprinkle a little Viagra into the cement dust you’re passing off as powdered rhino horn. You’ll have the cheapest, most effective product on the market. Hell, it’s even eco-friendly and cruelty-free.
Just do it soon, okay?
Okay, confession time: I was the guy who was warning everyone to keep their expectations low for The Force Awakens. Everyone’s been so amped about it, while I was the guy reminding people that there’s a non-zero chance that this movie might totally suck.
We had hints of its possible suckassery in all the trailers (an R2D2 ripoff, stormtrooper ripoffs, a Darth Vader ripoff), still more in the posters (Death Star ripoff) and merchandising (not just ripoffs, but the same TIE Fighters and X-Wings I wanted for Christmas in 1977). Everything said this thing was totally derivative.
Here’s the thing: it is. And yet it’s awesome.
I love, love, love this movie. The more I think about it, the more I like it. Yet somehow the more I think about it, the longer my list gets of all the plot elements J.J. Abrams ripped straight out of the original trilogy. That shouldn’t be possible: I’m supposed to like it less for all of that. But I don’t.
I won’t share spoilers here. I’ll just say this: Star Wars fans, this is a Star Wars movie. A real one. The kind we haven’t seen since 1983.
Most film critics make the same category mistake reviewing Star Wars films as they always do reviewing martial arts movies: they think these movies are like other movies. But they’re not. Like Elvis movies, they’re a genre unto themselves.
The benchmark for a great Elvis movie has nothing to do with storyline or performance. What matters is whether Elvis is in it. The benchmark for a great martial arts flick is similarly singular: do the fight scenes kick ass? If yes, then no one cares whether Jet Li or Tony Jaa can act.
Star Wars occupies a loftier position—the writing and acting do matter—but it still stands apart from any other genre because of this one overarching criterion: does it feel like a Star Wars movie? If not, then you get kinda sorta science fiction, kinda sorta fairy tale, but no one gives a crap. Layer a John Williams score on it if you like, but that doesn’t make it Star Wars.
This was one of the most important, most unforgivable mistakes of the prequel films: they don’t feel like Star Wars movies. Apart from getting the Force all wrong, apart from all the other fanboy complaints, they make the galaxy feel smaller, not bigger. Episode I was doomed from the very first shot, when those big scrawling yellow words said, “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.”
Seriously? Tax turmoil? And for this you send Jedi Knights? That movie was doomed to failure before the title got off the screen.
Not many critics picked up on this. They took aim at contrived dialogue, wooden performances, boring cinematography—all legitimate complaints, but they missed the bigger picture. They can’t miss it with The Force Awakens, though. This is no mere sci-fi movie. It’s Star Wars.
And I think it’s all the cribbed stuff from the original trilogy that makes the magic happen. I had braced myself for derivative bullshit, but what we got was derivative genius.
And hot damn, I am so glad to be a rabid Star Wars fan again!
I got the kind of email this morning that every writer likes to see: an acceptance for publication. That makes today a good day.
This new piece will appear in LEGO and Philosophy, due out next year, the latest in a series of pop culture and philosophy books I’ve been following with interest from the beginning. Another volume I’m looking forward to in 2016 is The Ultimate Star Trek and Philosophy, in celebration of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary. I have an essay in that one on Kant, Confucius, and the Prime Directive, written with my friend and co-author, Alejandro Bárcenas. Alejandro also contributed a chapter to The Daily Show and Philosophy, which goes to show that this series has the versatility to address almost anything, from major cultural landmarks (Star Wars) to passing fads (Twilight) to passing fads that have become cultural icons (The Daily Show).
What sets the LEGO book apart from all the rest is that the source material isn’t a text. We do have texts to go with it now, most famously the blockbuster movie, but that’s only a recent development. The call for papers solicited “works focusing on the many aspects of the multimedia LEGO phenomenon,” so, yeah, there’s text there. We’re talking cartoons, video games, advertising strategies, even theme parks, but first and foremost this philosophy book is about the toy. Not a text. A bunch of plastic.
So when I got the call for papers, two thoughts struck me almost at once. First, “Hey! Awesome! I love Legos. I should write something.” Then, about a millisecond later, “Wait, what’s there to write about?” I couldn’t see anything to agree or disagree with. How could I? LEGO would have say something.
Okay, as a commercial product it says, “Buy more of me!” But in a free market economy everything says that. As a toy LEGO speaks to the gender norms being pushed on children, but so does virtually everything in the toy store. What does this toy say that only it says, in a way that only it can say it?
The more I thought about it, the more unsuitable LEGO seemed for a philosophy book. After sidewalk chalk it’s about as close to a blank slate as a toy can get.
And that was it. That was the realization I needed. At its best LEGO says nothing. It says nothing, and it says it better than just about anything else you can find in the toy aisle. That’s why there’s so little need for improvement. It’s the ultimate expression of possibility. It’s inexhaustible. No matter what you take from it, it can always give more.
There’s one other philosophical concept that’s described this way, as an inexhaustible source of infinite potential: the dao. So that’s the subject of my chapter. It’s called “The Brick, the Plate, and the Uncarved Block: LEGO as an Expression of the Dao.”
Now then, what do Wyldstyle, Rodin, and the legendary sage Lao Tzu** have in common? An appreciation for infinite possibility. I’ll close this post with the Rodin quote I’ll use to open the book chapter. Rodin was asked for the secret to sculpting his many masterpieces. His answer: “I choose a block of marble and chop off whatever I don’t need.”
Has he said nothing about sculpture, or has he said everything?
* In the philosophical sense, not the extreme BASE jumper’s sense. Or maybe you figured that out on your own.
** If you want to write me an email telling me to correct this spelling to Laozi, since I spelled dao with a D and not a T, give yourself a pat on the back.
An article today on Digital Book World has got me thinking. Here's the centerpiece of it:
At Jellybooks, we recently developed a piece of code called candy.js, which is embedded inside an ebook to track how users actually read. Penguin Random House UK was among our earliest partners in a pilot program of the technology, and the insights we gathered were fascinating. The question now becomes what story this data tells us and what impact it might have.
Okay, that's a question, but it's not the question. The first question that pops into my head is, "Hey, who asked me for permission?"
Maybe they did ask, and maybe I gave it. I never read those big, long user agreement things. I accept whatever terms iTunes offers me because I can't listen to my music unless I accept. (Yes, I'm old-fashioned; I pay for things, I don't pirate them.) Maybe there was one of those "I agree" buttons to click whenever I bought my Kindle. I don't know; I'm faced with far too many of those buttons to remember which sites and gadgets had one.
Plenty of people will ask all the necessary questions about user privacy and all that good stuff. I'm going to ask the question of consent. Because the mere fact that I click "I agree" doesn't imply consent; it just implies that whoever wrote the terms and conditions has covered their ass.
There's a moral problem I pose to my ethics classes. A guy named Tom has the opportunity to peep into the ladies' changing room at Victoria's Secret. Let's say by hypothesis that he can do so without being caught, that he'll enjoy it if he peeps and he'll be frustrated if he doesn't. Now, should he peep?
If you're an ethical egoist, you believe "morally right" means "whatever is in my own best interest," and then you'll say he should peep. (It's in his best interest so long as he doesn't get caught, and in this case we'll guarantee he can't get caught.) If you're a utilitarian, you believe "morally right" means "whatever is in everyone's collective best interests," and then it looks like you still might be committed to saying Tom ought to peep. (So long as no one finds out it's hard to say anyone was harmed, so in this case the "everyone" of "everyone's collective best interests" is reduced to Tom alone.)
Most of my students will say they agree with utilitarianism until I give them this problem. Then they have second thoughts. Maybe you do too, and if not, I can make it worse. What if Tom has some weird X-Man mutant power that allows him to see breast cancer with 100% accuracy. His voyeurism is now potentially life-saving. (This makes him the skeeviest X-Man ever, I know.) If he enjoys peeping and he can find some way to anonymously deliver life-saving information to some of the women he peeps on, does that justify his voyeurism?
"Science? Huh. I think I've heard of that."
One of the big events at San Diego Comic Con was the newest footage from Batman v. Superman. With it came lots of speculation about the film (which I don't care about) and some interesting reflection on the characters (which I do). The one I saw bouncing around Twitter came from Joshua Rivera at Business Insider. Rivera says Zack Snyder and company have missed the point of Superman.
There are two popular explanations for why Superman can't succeed in modern movies: 1. He's too powerful; and 2. He's not interesting, because he's just a big ol' goodie two-shoes.
This is a pretty good summation of my own view, not of Superman as a character but of the stories writers tend to want to tell about him. Bo-ring.
People are often skeptical that a Superman movie can be good because stories need conflict, and conflict seems pretty hard to come by when your hero is a person who always does the right thing and can't be hurt. That, however, is a reductive way of looking at the character and the secret to why Superman stories are so great: They're never really about him. They're about us.
This last point is the really important one, and it's one I wish more people would notice. The thing is, it’s not unique to Superman. All good superhero stories are really about us. They’re about what we would do if we were given the same power. That’s why Peter Parker gets bullied, why Bruce Wayne loses his parents, and why Steve Rogers is frail. It’s why one of the major tropes is that the heroes get their powers because of a freak accident. Their powers are actually injuries. These heroes suffer from problems that could happen to any one of us, and have happened to many of us.
Superman is actually one of few exceptions to that rule. Most of the best-known heroes are victims of injustice, cruelty, and bad luck. The fact that they rise above it is what makes them heroic. They do what we hope we can do ourselves.
So here’s Rivera again:
Superman isn't good or special because he's an alien who crashes on Earth and ends up being incredibly powerful. He's special because after all that* he becomes someone who always does the right thing because he was raised by a couple of decent people from Kansas. That's it.
Okay, let's examine what follows from that. Superman is special because he could be the bully but he chooses not to be. He’s special in the way a kindergarten teacher is special for not beating up all the children, despite the fact that she’s vastly more powerful than they are in every respect.
Dude, if this is your super power, I’m not interested.
I have a Lex Luthor story I’ll have to indulge in later, but for now I’ll stay on message. Rivera says, ““To make a good Superman story, you have to embrace a few unpopular notions about what makes good superhero stories,” the most important of which is that you don’t have to get dark and gritty like Batman; “fighting for good because it's the right thing to do is a compelling enough reason.”
This is almost true, but I think the most important point is missing. The only interesting stories you can tell about Superman are the moral quandaries. The 1978 film Superman is the perfect case in point. Lex Luthor fires nuclear missiles at both coasts. Superman wants to save Lois Lane in California, but he made a promise to stop the missile aimed at New Jersey first. A tough moral choice.
Compare that to 2013’s Man of Steel. General Zod wants to destroy all life on Earth, and the only solution Superman can think of is to beat the bejeezus out of him. I thought the solution was obvious: “Hey, Zod, I love the idea of bringing our people back from beyond the brink of destruction. Count me in. The thing is, Mars is right next door. Let’s rebuild Krypton there, where we won’t have to kill anyone.”
Why doesn’t Superman take the obvious nonviolent solution? The only reason I can think of is that he was raised in Kansas, where the state Board of Education has rendered the science curriculum so anemic that Clark Kent was never taught that Mars exists.
Here’s the upshot: fighting for good because it's the right thing to do is not compelling enough to give us a decent story. There's a long-standing rule in moral philosophy (attributed to Immanuel Kant, if you want to know) that says "ought implies can." If it's ever the case that you ought to do X, it must be the case that you're capable of doing X. And if Superman can do almost anything, the question of ought is the only one worth answering.
The giant robot battle is coming! Finally!
US-based MegaBots builds giant piloted robots. So does Japan's Suidobashi Juko. Don't ask why; I think all the engineers are just Gundam fans with a lot of time on their hands. There's really only one practical purpose: to make the robots do battle, to prove which one is mightiest.
And now, at long last, that's going to happen. MegaBots issued the challenge and Suidobashi doubled down: they're going to fight, but it's got to be melee combat. The video reply is priceless:
As I said in a recent interview, my favorite cartoon growing up was TranZor Z. To be honest, it's not great. It was the premise that hooked me: a boy has this hovercraft in his garage, which in fact is the brain/cockpit of the giant robot TranZor Z. The plot of every single episode is basically summed up in the opening credits. Boy flies hovercraft, boy pilots giant walking death machine, boy fights monster of the week. That was the formula and I loved it.
MegaBots and Suidobashi are taking one epic metal-booted step toward making the dream come true. I'm going to wait to see who's the last robot standing, then call the winner and ask what kind of financing they need to turn the cockpit into a hovercraft I can park in my garage.
Okay, so Captain America’s shield is made of vibranium, right? That’s why the mighty Thor can smite it with his hammer and have none of the energy transfer through. Because otherwise Cap would be liquefied, since his only super power is being 1/10,000th as tough as Thor. Got it.
But then why should the bad guys mind getting hit with the shield? It absorbs all the impact energy, right? That’s the only reason it’s useful. Which means Cap should be able to punch me in the face with it all day and it wouldn’t hurt.
Solution #1, from a comic über-geek I know: it’s not vibranium, it’s a vibranium alloy. How exactly does this allow energy to transfer into a bad guy’s face but not into Cap’s arm? My über-geek doesn’t know. He’s just nitpicking.
Solution #2, from an honest-to-god physicist who asks, “if you take the energy of Thor’s hammer striking Captain America’s shield, there’s a large amount of kinetic energy in the hammer that is transferred to vibrational energy in the shield. If the vibranium absorbs it, that energy has to go some place, and where does it go?” His answer? It becomes light:
In the first Avengers film …when Thor strikes Cap’s shield… you see this enormous blast of light in the visible and ultraviolet part of the spectrum. So the vibrational energy is being transformed into light energy, which then radiates out from the shield.
Okay, so this solves the conservation of energy problem, but it hardly explains why getting hit by the shield hurts. When it hits me it should light me up, not knock me out.
Solution #3, from a physicist and comic geek: vibranium is part battery, part capacitor, part indestructible shield stuff. When all that impact energy hits the shield,
the atomic bonds in the shield… must be able to store that energy in some form. […] If the energy is being stored in the bonds between the shield’s atoms, that could explain the variability in the shield’s physical characteristics…
…you know, so that sometimes it hits something and sticks into it like a blade, but other times it caroms around like a pool ball.
I kinda like this explanation. The only problem is that nobody ever mentions it. Like, not even once. If Howard Stark created the shield, surely he ought to have figured this out.
So, for this Fourth of July, I give you Solution #4: vibranium is a perfect reflector. We have to take some liberties with Newton’s third law, but basically it’s like this: in the case of an ordinary shield (or any other physical object) every time something hits the shield, the shield hits back. That’s the third law at work: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Some things, like billiard balls, are good at reflecting the energy back without absorbing a whole lot of it into themselves. Other things, like eggs, aren’t. Thus eggs are fragile and billiard balls are both hard and bouncy. So here’s my pet theory:
billiard ball : egg :: vibranium : everything else
Vibranium must be the billiard ball multiplied to the power of billiard ball. It’s so good at reflecting energy that every time an object transfers equal and opposite reaction energy into it, the vibranium transfers that energy back too. It must do this so efficiently that all impact energy is reflected back out, smashing the bejeezus out of whatever’s on the receiving end.
Like I said, I’m taking liberties here, but Solution #4 explains why the mighty Mjolnir doesn’t shatter Cap’s arm and explains why it still hurts to get clocked by the shield. In fact, it even explains why Captain America hits so much harder than you’d think he could (given his relative power level on the team): the action his shield puts into your face is actually made worse by the equal and opposite reaction your face puts into the shield.
Probably the best thing that’s going to happen to me this year: I shook hands with Peter Mayhew. That’s right, Chewbacca himself.
There was serious star power in Houston this weekend. I saw Stan Lee, George Takei, Rowdy Roddy Piper, and Larry “the Soup Nazi” Thomas. I talked to Barry Bostwick and Nell Campbell, whose names you’ll know well if you were a Rocky Horror Picture Show kid like me. I was in the same room with Rosario Dawson, which is enough to make me swoon.
I met fans too, of course, and signed a few books, and spoke on a couple of panels, and met some great authors that way. I’d known the name Rachael Acks already, mostly because I absolutely love her "Suffering for Charity" movie reviews. It was great to talk geology and feminism with her on two different panels.
It was during an autographing session that I had one of those chance meetings that make a con like this a truly special event. There I am, sitting next to Jonathan Maberry, a Seriously Big Deal in the world of comics, science fiction, and horror. He sees I’m in a cast and asks me how I hurt myself.
“Jujutsu,” I say.
“Oh, what style?” he asks.
“Oh, cool. I did Shinowara-ryu jujutsu for fifty-one years.”
Look, I’ve been in martial arts for twenty-two years. Every now and then I meet someone who’s been training longer than I have, but I almost never meet someone who’s been in it more than twice as long as I have. Much less someone who also nerds out on comics and sci fi stuff. Much less someone who’s kicking more ass with his pen than he is with his sword.
So Jonathan Maberry and I spent an hour on Saturday afternoon talking about martial arts and the writing biz. It was the best hour I’ve spent at one of these things. I ran into him again on Sunday, and he told me Daughter of the Sword would be his in-flight reading on the way home. How cool is that?
Jonathan, please don’t be offended if I say it’s almost as cool as shaking hands with Peter Mayhew. The only reason he outranks you is that Chewbacca outranks everyone in everything.
The question I've been answering most since my return from Comicpalooza is, are you okay?
The weather was absolutely nuts on Monday, including tornado warnings in my own city of Austin. Flash floods between here and Houston resulted in several fatalities, and some people are still missing. But the worst damage we saw at my house was one unhappy black Lab, who had to wear his Thundershirt because he’s terrified of storms. He looks happy in this picture, but only because his people came back home to rescue him.
New Zealand just passed a law that's making headlines. It’s the first to declare that animals are "sentient"—that is, that they "can experience both positive and negative emotions, including pain and distress."
Presumably this will be met with cries of "Finally!" from animal rights activists around the world, and cries of "Well, duh!" from everyone else who hasn’t been staying abreast of animal rights legislation but has ever met an animal before.
Because for most of us this isn’t a big shock. To say a puppy is sentient is to say it’s capable of being happy and unhappy. That’s it. That’s the big reveal.
"Well, duh," the modern philosopher says proudly. "We’ve been taking the whole sentience thing pretty seriously for a good two hundred years now." Jeremy Bentham, one of my philosophical role models*, said morality was grounded not in rationality but in sentience—that is, not in the ability to reason but rather the ability to suffer. Shocking stuff circa 1800, but these days his view is pretty intuitive. If I kick your puppy, which is worse: that I’ve injured and terrified the puppy, or that I’ve committed a property violation against you? Most people side with the puppy.
So here’s what the big headline should have been: “New Zealand passes first law to catch up with where mainstream Western moral philosophy was two hundred years ago.”
To which the Buddhists can smack their foreheads and say, "Yes, but two hundred years ago the big headline should have read, 'First mainstream Western moral philosopher catches up with where Buddhism was 2,300 years ago.'"
To which the average caveman of 40,000 years ago can say—and maybe you want to say too—"Well, duh. Have you ever met a puppy? Did it have a very good poker face? Why do you people need all of these philosophers and lawyers just to tell you a puppy is capable of being happy and unhappy?"
*Bentham doesn’t make my list because of his philosophy. He’s my role model because he had himself taxidermized after death. In fact he’s still mounted, stuffed, and on display at the university where he taught. Honest. Every semester I tell my students this is what I want my family to do with me when I die: take me to the taxidermist, then to whoever does the animatronic stuff for Chuck E. Cheese. Stick me in the philosophy section of the library wherever I was teaching, and rig it up so that I can smile and wave when people come down to hang out with me and my favorite books.
Okay, so here's the story that caught my attention: a renowned Japanese sword smith has forged a katana made enitrely from the iron of a meteorite. It's called the Tentetsutou, meaning Sword of Heavenly Metal.
Pretty badass, right? But you have to wonder why he made it. There's the obvious answer, of course: badassery is its own reward. But consider the following:
Fact: Japan has been exploring space since 1969.
Fact: Japan stepped up its game in space exploration in 2003, and since then has landed spacecraft on an asteroid and on the moon.
Fact: "Giant space monster invades Earth" has been a trope in Japanese movies and anime for as long as there has been Japanese space exploration.
Coincidence? You might think so. But when a renowned blacksmith forges the Sword of Heavenly Metal, there is only one reasonable conclusion to draw: there are giant space monsters, they are coming to invade Earth, Japanese astronomers discovered them years ago, and and also discovered their weakness: they can be killed, but only by a blade forged from the cosmically irradiated metal of deep space.
We can only assume that there's a super secret training facility in some underground bunker deep beneath the streets of Tokyo. In it, hundreds of martial artists are training for the ultimate honor: to be given the Tentetsutou, and then to fight the aliens singlehandedly in a heroic last ditch effort to save humanity.
Obviously. It's the only reasonable conclusion.
I started the next novel this week!
That's all. Just wanted to say it.
2014 was a doozie.
I moved from upstate New York back home to Minnesota—a prescient choice, given the eight feet of snow New York got hammered with this winter. Minnesota is plenty cold, but at least we weren’t at risk of the roof caving in.
Then my partner and I uprooted our home and moved down to Texas. Right from the minute we got here, this seemed like a terrible choice. That was in August, when it was over 100° every damn day. Like, for a month. But now that it’s winter and I’m still riding my motorcycle, I can say I’m pretty happy with the decision. Longer, sunnier days make for a happier, sunnier Steve.
2014 was a good year for publishing too. In September YEAR OF THE DEMON came out in mass-market paperback. (Feel free to order it if you haven’t got it already!) DAUGHTER OF THE SWORD came out in Bulgarian and Italian, and the Italian edition of YEAR OF THE DEMON also came out. THE TIME TRAVELER’S ALMANAC is selling like hot cakes, which means plenty of people out there are reading my story, “The Most Important Thing in the World.”
On the philosophical side of philosofiction, October saw the arrival of PHILOSOPHY AND THE MARTIAL ARTS, with a chapter from Yours Truly. (In it I address the question of whether we martial artists are immoral or merely irrational for voluntarily inflicting so much unnecessary suffering on each other.) I also learned that my co-authored article on Kant, Confucius, and Captain Kirk will be included in the forthcoming STAR TREK AND PHILOSOPHY. Needless to say, I’m very excited about this book.
The biggest news on the writing front is all about the third installation of the Fated Blades, DISCIPLE OF THE WIND. 2014 saw it completed, then recognized as the biggest book yet, then trimmed down to fighting weight, then revised and edited, then copyedited and proofed, and now it’s ready to go. (Preorder now and you can be among the first to get it on April 7!)
There’s also a little surprise coming, courtesy of Kaida. I’ll keep you posted.
What else? I saw the Episode VII trailer and I’m hopeful that JJ Abrams can save the franchise. I saw The Hobbit: Battle of the Three Disappointments and I’m glad that franchise is dead and buried. The best thing I can say about that movie is that as fan fiction goes, it has really expensive special effects. Oh, and Martin Freeman is simply stellar in every scene he’s in, but at this point that almost goes without saying.
Actually, 2014 was a great year for movies all around. My favorites (in no kind of order): The Imitation Game, Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, American Hustle, X-Men: Days of Future Past, 20 Feet from Stardom, Godzilla, and Interstellar, plus the tons-o’-fun Guardians of the Galaxy and The LEGO Movie.
So yeah, big year! Hope yours was a good one too.
I’m looking forward to Comicpalooza 2015, in Houston over Labor Day weekend. The lineup of panels is looking great. I just got the prospective list from one of the organizers. None of this is set in stone, but if they do even half of these, it’s going to be a kick-ass con. Here’s just a handful of the potential panel topics.
For nerds, geeks, and fanboys:
- The Storytelling of Star Wars
- Harry Potter and the Future of Hogwarts
- Star Trek vs. Star Wars, It’s On
- Game of Thrones and Epic Fantasy
For aspiring writers:
- Writing Unforgettable Characters
- How to Create Believable Worlds
- What I Wish I’d Known as a New Writer
For lovers of fantasy fiction, strong female protagonists, and not-more-of-the-same-white-male-heroes-doing-everything:
- Urban Fantasy Author Roundtable
- Why We Love Urban Fantasy
- Multiculturalism in Science Fiction and Fantasy
- Gender in Fantasy Fiction
I’ll post more details here as soon as I get ‘em.