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Jun. 29th, 2014

tiger woman

Has it really been three months?

I haven't posted anything since March! And I haven't really participated in fandom, either. I've read a bit of fic here and there: quite a lot of Blake's 7, but it didn't result in me wanting to write any, also everything good there is for certain pairings in Discworld/Pratchett fandom (namely: City Watch, and some Witches... and I would have devoured every last bit of Small Gods fic, except there isn't any) because I recently discovered the joys of Discworld. And some X-Men fic after the new movie, but I didn't get into the fandom as much as I did after First Class. And I did some work for that big, unfinished DW audio project we started ages ago, but not as much as I should have >__<

Mostly, what I've been doing is preparing for a move to the US! Yeah, big news there, and I completely failed to post about it here. I'll be teaching German language classes at Yale for a year. The decision was really spontaneous - the job is part of an exchange programme that sends German PhD students to Yale to teach German classes, and somehow this year there was one open place still left and my advisor/boss said it'd be a great opportunity. I didn't have much time to decide, so I just said Yes spontaneously, handed in my application and got the job. I'm still not sure what to think about it: on the one hand it's super scary, because Yale isn't just some little university, and the students will probably be way posher than me, and I've never taught German to non-native speakers, so the job part of it is going to be REALLY demanding, plus I'm a little sad about leaving behind all my friends, even if it's just for a year. As usual, I'm anxious about EVERYTHING. But on the other hand, I've never been to the US and going there is super exciting (and I'll be paid for it, heh), and looking back on what I posted this winter, I really wanted an opportunity to get out and do something different. Plus, it'll look great on my CV!

Connecticut isn't really the place I would have chosen to go in the US - if I had the choice, I would have chosen some place that doesn't look so much like Central Europe ;) Does anyone have any opinions on Yale or New Haven or CT? Or just general advice about the US?
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Mar. 8th, 2014

Ultimate X-Men lips

London

I just (well, yesterday evening) came back from a 5 day trip to London. It was extremely spontaneous - I found out Tuesday that I was flying there on Sunday. Our English Department offers a theatre trip to London every spring, organized by my boss/thesis supervisor. This year the date was a bit unfortunate, in the middle of spring break, so he didn't manage to fill all twenty available places, and offered the three remaining ones (for free! they would have cost 300 Euros!) to his TAs/research assistants. I'd never say no to a cheap trip to London, so I went. Luckily I also knew many of the other people who went - the two girls I shared a room with at the hotel are good friends of mine, and there were the other TAs and some of my former tutorial students, so I had good company throughout and it was great fun.

On Sunday, after a terribly early flight and a terrible train ride to London from Stansted airport, I went over to Erin and Katy's place for a quick visit and a late breakfast and met some other fandom people and watched the penultimate episode of Blake's 7. Then I went to the hotel, met up with the other people, and we went on a walking tour of the city that ended in a visit to a pub - I've already forgotten what it was called, but it wasn't that great because it was full of drunk Russian rugby fans (of all things - I didn't even know there *were* Russian rugby fans!).

On Monday I went to the British library with my boss to get a reader's pass and then met up with one of my friends to visit the National Portrait Gallery (which is surprisingly interesting for a collection that consists entirely of portraits) and in the evening we went to the Bush Theatre to see We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884 - 1915 by Jackie Sibblies Drury. This is a very recent play, and it started what turned out to be a common theme of all four plays that we saw. German history: it's a gift that keeps on giving. Namibia used to be a German colony. Germany wasn't nearly as successful at colonialism as England, Spain, Portugal or France, and as a consequence, its colonial history is usually forgotten and overshadowed by the two World Wars, but it is in fact every bit as bloody and horrible as the rest of it. In Namibia, the Germans first cooperated with the Herero and considered this tribe a model of perfection - and when the Herero stopped being colonial poster children at the beginning of the 20th century, the the Germans brutally killed most of the Herero by stealing all their cattle and driving them into the desert. In the play, which is about a rehearsal of a play (the eponymous "presentation" about the Herero) by some young black and white actors, one of the actor characters called the genocide of the Herero a "rehearsal of the holocaust". I'm not sure you can say that, because both genocides were singular events in history, but at the same time it is a connection you can't help but see once you learn more about it.

The play itself is excellent, because it plays with the conventions of theatre, and brilliantly tears down the fourth wall - not just between actors and audience, but between the play and the play within the play. The ending is deeply unsettling because after a brutal culmination of violence it ends with about five minutes of silence and the audience is left unsure if this is really it, which I thought was very well done.

Then on Tuesday we saw War Horse and amazingly, we had seats in the first row - I could touch the stage! This play is an exceptional visual spectacle, so this total immersion was magical. The horses, if you haven't seen them, are fully mechanical props moved by several actors/puppet players and it's incredible, but they look and move exactly like real horses but at the same time they look like these steampunky wooden automatons - I have never seen anything like it. War Horse, of course, is a play about WWI, so again there were evil Germans, but also a "one good German" type character (it is a ridiculously sentimal play, but I admit I did have tears in my eyes at some point - I mean, horses! my inner ten year old was spell-bound). After the show, some of us joked that there was a theme emerging, but we thought that was it, since the other two plays had nothing to do with Germany... but we were wrong.

On Wednesday, we saw The Weir by Conor McPherson. This play is more Irish than Ireland. It's a one-acter set in an Irish Pub. The stage was set up, rather hyperrealistically, as said pub, and the characters were all terribly Irish, and the whole play is about them drinking whiskey and beer and telling ghost and fairy stories - it was rather dire, to be honest, especially if you don't like realism very much, but we couldn't help but laugh. Now and then, the pub goers brought up "the Germans" - meaning all the tourists who come in the summer and cursing them for ruining their pub.

Still, the last play was the new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Stephen Ward, and it had nothing to do with Germany. It's about a British political scandal in the 1960s, the Profumo affair - the war minister, Profumo, had an extramarital affair with a young girl, Christine Keeler, who also slept with a Russian spy. To cover up this affair, the conservative government at the time picked Stephen Ward, a successful osteopath, as the scapegoat and put him on trial for procuring and "immoral earnings" because Christine Keeler lived with him - false accusations, even though Ward led a wild life. The government faked some evidence, Ward was convicted and vilified by the press, and in the end committed suicide. This is a weird plot for a musical, but I thought it did work quite well - I hate sentimental musicals, or musicals that are only about the audiovisual spectacle, but Stephen Ward was more like a normal play with some singing and a rather black-and-white morality (the conservatives were all evil bastards and Ward the innocent victim), plus it passed the Bechdel test with flying colors. Critically, the musical was a flop (Webber's composing was uninspired and unoriginal) and it failed at the box office, too, but I was charmed by the leading man's performance - Stephen Ward came across as charming, graceful, slightly diabolic but at the same time strangely innocent and of course tragic, and his singing was lovely. However, our whole group pretty much face-palmed as soon as the show began: the very first scene begins with the curtain lifting to reveal Ward standing amidst some Madame Tussaud-style wax figures of historical villains - the acid bath killer, Jack the Ripper, Stalin... and wax figure Hitler. That was the only reference to Germany, but it was on the nose enough to leave a lasting impression.

Aside from theatre, we did the usual touristy stuff - various museums, a bit of shopping, Camden Market, pubs, food from all over the world... Two things that did stand out were our tour of the new BBC buildings near Oxford Circus. Compared to the old BBC, they were amazingly modern, and the tour had some fun interactive bits. Among other things, we could stage a radio play, which was really interesting. And the other cool thing was Westminster Abbey - my boss gave us this tip, so three of us went there in the afternoon on Wednesday and attended the Ash Wednesday Evensong service. Anglican services are really lovely, and of course the choir in Westminster is amazing. It was inspiring enough that although I didn't take part in communion and didn't go up front to be signed with ashes for lent (I'm not baptized, so I can't), I did go and get a blessing - it can't hurt, and it was a fascinating experience to take part in this sort of communal ritual in a foreign country.

To sum up, it was a lovely trip, all the more wonderful for being so unexpected :)

Feb. 8th, 2014

Trickster

Books!

I'm gonna talk about books in this post, that is, books I've read in 2014 so far. Most of them are Children's Fiction because I'm doing my PhD on CF. I'm still about anxious about that, because on the one hand I'm enjoying the reading a lot, but on the other hand it's one of those genres that have been quite popular, especially among female lit students, for the last decade or so and I kinda wish I had a topic where I didn't feel the need to add It isn't about Harry Potter! every time I mention it. But it's also about tricksters and that pretty much guarantees 100% fun in my reading. Well, almost. Now, about the books:

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer: I wasn't sure if Artemis qualifies as a trickster figure, and having read the book now, I'd say no. On the one hand, he's clever, operating outside social norms (he's a child acting like an adult and a criminal) and an underdog (again: child, plus he decides he wants to antagonize fairies even though he can't do magic), plus he's a bit of a fool in an emotional sense because he really doesn't know himself very well. But on the other hand, he's so serious a character that the narrator feels the need to comment every time he makes a (lame) joke, and he's extremely haughty/stuck up. One of the minor characters on the other hand (Mulch Diggums, a kleptomaniac dwarf) is a proper Trickster right down to the scatological humor. As for the book itself, I really didn't like it - it's so over the top that it might be a parody of the spy/heist genre, but combines this with really serious topics (mentally ill parents) and in the end there's hardly any emotional resolution. It's the first part in a series, of course, but there was too much action and too little genuine feeling to make an impact.

Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl: I used to own this as a kid and loved it quite a lot. It's still a good kid's book but wince-inducingly sexist. Fox is of course a trickster, and there's even a feast full of carnivalesque excess.

Mr Stink by David Walliams: An okay book, a bit paint by numbers - a down-trodden nerdy little girl befriends a bum who turns her life upside down and makes everything better. It's also contemporary satire targeting British conservatives, Starbucks, our attitude towards homeless people, etc. I was rather disappointed when it turned out that Mr Stink used to be an aristocrat, because COME ON - this negates the whole "homeless people are people too" message. But he is a trickster.

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M. Barrie: Barrie actually wrote several "original" Peter Pans, and this is one of them. In this, Peter is a baby (no really - this creeped me out to no end! He's supposedly several DAYS old, yet TALKS. WTF, Barrie) living among the animals and fairies in Kensignton Gardens. Not much happens. The narrator is a grown man addressing children and it's super-annoying, creepy AND patronizing. I did enjoy one episode: a feisty little girl who regularly frightens her older brother with a goat "monster" under their bed gets lost in the gardens and spends the night there. Instead of freezing to death, she meets Peter and nearly stays with him. When she returns to her family, she is coaxed into giving Peter her nightmare goat as a gift and it becomes his mount.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum: Had read this before, and it was more entertaining than I remember. None of the characters QUITE fit the trickster archetype. I think Scarecrow comes closest because he's a wise fool and comedic relief, plus he's got a grotesque body.

Baron Munchhausen by Erich Kästner: Munchhausen is one of the German folk tricksters (although he is an actual historical figure and of relatively recent origin - 18th century - so he's perhaps more a literary figure than a folk hero). He basically tells outrageous stories his manly yet completely implausible exploits in the Russian army and fighting the Turks. Not sure if I'll include non-English CF.

Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi: We're not in Disneyland anymore. Wouldn't give this to present day children to read because there would be SO MANY questions. I mean, it starts with a drunk guy who thinks that he's delirious when a piece of wood talks to him and it only gets more inappropriate - there's an episode where a farmer catches Pinocchio stealing grapes, puts him in a dog collar and forces him to become the farm's watchdog... and compared to everyone else in this book, this farmer is nice and sane. Still, amidst the insanity and cruelty, there are some visuals that stay with you - the boys transformed into donkeys, the fishes eating the donkey skin off Pinocchio, the talking puppet itself.

Watership Down by Richard Adams: Utterly brilliant and lovely, but marred by outdated sexism and other ideological baggage. Still, would read this to my children. IIRC, in the cartoon series they made Blackberry (the smart rabbit) a girl and added more female characters, and that is sorely necessary. But like the Jungle Books, I can't bring myself to dislike it. I was also amused by how utterly British Hazel and Bigwig are - for some reason, Hazel especially makes me think of Lawrence of Arabia and imperial lit, maybe because befriends "natives", i.e. non-rabbit animals in order to exploit their skills and local knowledge (and he ends up scarred and slightly broken). Bigwig, otoh, makes me think of the Brig. I think there will be some interesting things to say about the overlap between British heroes in imperialist adventure stories and trickster narratives.

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett: Pratchett and Diskworld is hit and miss for me, but I ADORE this book. It parodies the Talking Animals genre of children's fiction (if you've read both: Dangerous Beans is Fiver and Peaches is Hazel and Darktan is Bigwig y/y?) and the Pied Piper of Hamelin but despite the humorous elements, it quite a serious and touching (and gruesomely dark) story. Maurice the cat and the rats have recently and by accident become sentient and they're only just developing a culture, discovering philosophy and politics and ethics and it's a rather frightening and painful process. The rats have discovered a Beatrix Potter/Winnie-the-Pooh-type children's book about talking animals ("Mr Bunnsy has an Adventure") and it has become a kind of promised land/utopia for them and without giving away the ending, there's a tragic element to this.

Eight Days of Luke by Diana Wynne Jones: if you're a Loki/Norse myth fan (especially a kid!Loki fan, since Loki appears as a boy in this novel), or a Diana Wynne Jones fan, RUN DON'T WALK to this book. DWJ gets Norse myth - she gets it SO right. Loki is great in this, but I SQUEED when Thor showed up, and Odin is also perfect. The basic plot: a Harry Potter type neglected/emotionally abused orphan (David) frees a pre-Ragnarok-post-Balder's-death Loki from imprisonment and then protects him from the rest of the Norse pantheon - there is trickery on all sides, and setting office buildings on fire and wagers with Odin and an amusement park that is actually Valhalla and magic and bittersweet endings (can't have Norse gods without tragedy). This was published in 1975, and suddenly, Neil Gaiman's American Gods seems much less original - he does acknowledge this as an influence.

I also read bunch of secondary lit works, and Corpus Christi by Terrence McNally (a modern passion play; what if Jesus was a gay kid from small town America - quite good, would like to see on stage), and a Star Trek tie-in novel, The Crimson Shadow by Una McCormack, who I sort of stumbled over on LJ while looking for Blake's 7 fic. As the title suggests, it's about Cardassia and Garak (about a decade post DS9), but it also has Picard, and Garak and Picard being diplomats and discussing literature and a bunch of enjoyable female OCs and political intrigue. Basically: excellent novel-length fanfic.

Jan. 19th, 2014

coyote

(no subject)

I'm trying to upload more of my fics to AO3 and the most annoying thing is trying to find all the stuff I wrote on kink and anon memes because I NEVER bookmarked any of it, and I only remember a few things and sometimes I come across something and think: Did I write this? I think I did, no one ever de-anoned, it feels terribly familiar, it's got a few mistakes that were probably made by a non-native speaker, but what I DIDN'T write it? That'd be really awkward... Like, did I write that one Loki/Tony with the failed assassination and the ice cream? I probably did - there are some awkward lines that I'm itching to edit - but there's no way to tell now.

Dec. 28th, 2013

Lex hand

Dec Talking Meme - Villains

The last of these posts is for xparrot, who wants me to talk about villains and why I like them.

My first impulse was to write a justification, as though liking villains is something that you need to apologize for - when in fact I think it's a near-universal human reaction. Villains are fun to watch and read about. Which is why you find most of the really good villains in popular entertainment and not so many of them in high-brow literature, I guess, because high-brow literature often thinks it doesn't need to be fun. And another thing about villains: there aren't very many of them in real life. The word itself implies fiction, and when we call a real-life person a villain it's either humorous or a failure to describe the reality of the situation.

Other than that, though, what's villain really? Wikipedia suggests "evil", "bad guy", "antagonist", and "devoted to wickedness and crime". I don't have much use for "evil" as a label except in some truly horrible cases where sensible description isn't possible. And as wiki also points out, not all villains are antagonists and not all antagonists are villains. "Devoted to wickedness and crime" is a great description, though, because it's so ridiculous it's perfect. I mean, have you ever met a person who is devoted to wickedness and crime? I know or have known a number of people who have committed crimes (and so, I think, does everyone else, although the severity of the crimes may vary), and I've met my share of awful people as well, but none of them were DEVOTED to it (thankfully, I guess). But villains? Yep, villains - that is: fictional characters who truly deserve this label - do indeed devote their life to the pursuit of wickedness (even though they may of course not think of it as wickedness), and if they're really good villains, they do so with relish and style. It's that devotion that makes villains fun, the same way a hero's devotion to some good cause makes them inspiring. In real life, except for a few terrible fanatics, most people do bad things because they're lazy or ignorant, because they don't question what they're told, or because they don't know how else to get what they want or express their frustrations. Villains, though, like heroes, have a higher purpose, a true goal, an all-consuming passion - something larger than life. I think the true wish-fullfilment potential of villains lies not only in the fact that they can step over the line, it's that they have the criminal energy to do so over and over again. Even when they're not particularly good at what they do, they keep doing it, enthusiastically.

I guess that what I'm saying is: I prefer my villains camp. But if they aren't camp, then I like them sympathetic. For me, a sympathetic villian is a villain whose motives are relatable, if bad - a character that makes you think "on a bad day, under the same circumstances, maybe I'd be just as bad."

I'd say that I also really love redeemable villains, except I'm not sure what exactly we mean by "redeemable". Does it mean that they're sympathetic enough that we're willing to forgive them entirely? Does it mean that they have a chance of making up for the evil they've done by doing good? Is it the severity of a crime that makes a villain irredeemable, or is it their inability to change? Still, leaving aside the questionable terminology, I'm a sucker for redemption, like 99% of fandom. I like both a bad guy who embarks on guilt-ridden atonement and a bad guy who changes sides out of pragmatic reasons or because they just happen to like the good guys more.

Here are some villains I've loved:

Mr Freeze: as a kid, I once saw that Batman movie in which Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Mr Freeze. I don't remember if I actually cried, but I thought Mr Freeze was an extremely sad character. His wife is dead! He's frozen! His only choice in life is supervillainy. Or something. No, Arnold Schwarzenegger can't actually act. I know. I was a kid, okay? I'm listing him here because that's the first time I can remember liking a villain.

Spike (Buffy): Spike is a borderline case because he becomes an anti-hero around season 5, but Spike is awesome from the moment when he arrives in Sunnydale as a chaotic crazy punk vampire. The funny thing about Spike is that he's a villain motivated mainly by love - he loves Dru, he loves his unlife, and he loves what he's doing entirely too much to let the world be destroyed. The other reason I love Spike is because he's such a rebel (until S7). Buffy herself is a bit of a rebel especially in the first couple of seasons, but she increasingly becomes a straight-forward heroine, and Spike brings some much needed anarchy and disrespect during S4-6.

Alex Krycek (X-Files): Krycek, like Spike, is a recurring villain who keeps changing allegiances as it suits him and has great chemistry with the protagonist. His motives are mysterious, his skills are many, and you know it's gonna be a good episode as soon as his name shows up in the credits. He's a traitor and a double agent and still you can't shake the feeling that he's just one face-heel-turn away from turning out to be a good guy after all.

Lex Luthor (DC animated universe): There are many great things about animated Luthor - he's there from the first episode of Superman:TAS to the last episode of JLU, so the two series are as much his story as they are the story of Superman and the Justice League. Like Spike, he actually ends up as a good guy, but only after losing all his money, getting cancer from kryptonite, embarking on a career as a crazy spandex-wearing supervillain, going to jail, blackmailing his way out of jail, embarking on a political career, going crazy, going to jail again, escaping from jail (still crazy), accidentally causing the apocalypse (still crazy) and finally throwing himself into a giant powersource to become a god (no longer crazy, but too enlightened to be evil). Seriously, this guy has all the good luck AND all the bad luck.

Nikola Tesla (Sanctuary): He's Nikola Tesla! But he's also a vampire. He's clever, snarky, way too arrogant for his own good, he has rubbish megalomaniac plans and half of the time he actually ends up helping the heroes (because he used to be best friends with the protagonist) or needing to be rescued by them. Also he's Nikola Tesla.

The Shade (DC comics): Originally, the Shade was just your average cackling comic book villain who bothered Golden Age Flash and teamed up with the Society of Evil or some such nonsense, but in the Nineties, the "Starman" series re-invented the Shade as a stylish gentleman villain with a strange fondness for heroes who becomes a mentor and sometime ally to the new Starman. It's revealed that the Shade is actually more than a hundred years old and began life as the Victorian Richard Swift (which explains why his supervillain costume is a Victorian outfit complete with top hat!) and became a supervillain after some of his friends performed a spell that grafted "shadow matter" onto his soul. His power is that he controls shadows which manifest physically (similar to Green Lantern but cooler looking) and can travel through the Shadowlands, plus he is immortal and thus quite knowledgeable. He's a criminal, but mostly for fun, because really the Shade lives outside normal human society. He'd be an anti-hero except for the fact that he actively cultivates a villainous persona. Aside from this interesting backstory, the Shade is extremely camp, unfailingly polite, honorable (especially where his nemesis the Flash is concerned), stylish as hell and more than a little sad.

The Master: The Master comes in several flavours (as Time Lords do) so there's a degree of versatility to him that he shares with all my favourite villains - he can be fun and tragic, polite and gleefully evil, extremely cool and extremely rubbish. Delgado, Ainley and Shalka, my favourites, exemplify my three favourite types of villain: gentleman, camp and redeemed.

Crowley (Supernatural): played by Mark Sheppard, so he's automatically awesome. Crowley is every bit as witty and charming as a demon should be. The first time we meet him, he actually helps the Winchesters against Lucifer (he's pulling a Spike because he likes the world the way it is and doesn't want Lucifer's post-apocalyptic empire), later on he seizes the oppportunity and becomes King of Hell, after which he unfortunately becomes rather nastily evil...

All of these characters have things in common, but one is especially striking: they're men. There are some female characters I could have added: Catwoman, Mystique or Cylon Six for example. Cylon Six is really more an anti-hero, though and so are the iterations of Catwoman and Mystique that I like. There may soon be a female addition to the list, though, because at some point during S2 (well, Pressure Point, to be precise) I've begun to like Blake's 7's Servalan rather a lot and she undeniably fits in here :)

Dec. 27th, 2013

Five

Dec Talking Meme Dec 27 - Artificial Intelligence

blindmapmaker asked: Robots/AI or any more or less mechanical/digital life-form. Is SF better off with using them a lot or better without them? (The Culture vs. Vorkosigan for example).

I love this question!

I like AI, yet at the same time I'm often dissatisfied with the way it is treated in science-fiction. Usually, artificial intelligences (be they robots, spaceships, digital lifeforms, cyborgs, holograms or whatever) in science-fiction fit into one of these categories, all of which could just as easily apply to aliens:

1) Monsters - AI is often portrayed as unemotional and therefore ruthless/evil. Quite often they're also inimical to biological life. Examples would be the machines in Terminator or Matrix, the Borg in Star Trek (the Borg are cyborgs, but their collective consciousness is only achieved via their machine parts, so they qualify at least partly as AI) or the Cylons in the original Battlestar Galactica. If they're just plain evil, this is usually boring, but sometimes it works because artifical intelligence can be very alien and therefore uncanny, and its motivations aren't necessarily the same as those of human villains - a good example would be "Dark Star" in which the sentient bomb explodes not because it is evil but because it believes that this is the only way it can prove its existence.

2) People - the majority of all AI characters probably falls into this category. From a storytelling persepctive, these artifical lifeforms are really just people with unusual personalities or abilities. Examples would be Data or the holographic Doctor from Star Trek, ORAC from Blake's 7, JARVIS in the Iron Man films, K9 in Doctor Who, the human cylons in the new Battlestar Galactica, Cameron in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles etc. These characters all have personalities that could just as easily belong to a human or a biological alien, although in some cases, there are some uncertainties - are the Voyager's EMH or ORAC sentient or just very good simulations (both of them would pass the Turing test easily, but I don't think that really proves anything)? Can Data or Cameron experience feelings the way humans do? What makes these characters interesting is on the one hand their struggle to become fully formed individuals but on the other hand also their potential to grow beyond human limits. They can access and store more information than a human could in an entire lifetime, and they can process it much more quickly. Sometimes, physical embodiment isn't as important to them as it is to biological lifeforms, or they are capable of changing their bodies almost indefinitely. AI is almost invariably not mortal. Detractors of these characters usually complain that they're too powerful or versatile (and it is true that once you've got a Data or an ORAC, you hardly need humans anymore - which is one of the main points of the Culture series, in which humans would be completely superfluous except the AI characters gladly indulge them and consider them worthwile companions) but I love it when these possibilities are fully explored (such as in Voyager's "Renaissance Man" or "Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy"). What annoys me a great deal is when AI characters believe that their ONLY purpose in life is to become more human - why would they, when that is only one of many options?

3) Gods - once you take the potential to its logical conclusion, AI can and does become godlike (usually not an infallible God as in monotheism but at least divinely powerful as in polytheism). In some cases, their power is limited to a certain realm, such as in Shadowrun or Neuromancer, where the AIs exist in the Matrix and can influence the outside world only indirectly. In other cases it isn't. Many sci-fi fans (and also some roleplayers I've met) complain that once you get godlike characters, a universe becomes boring and everyone who isn't godlike could just as well quit. I think that's silly - but then I love mythology and fantasy. There's something very appealing (in a wishfulfillment fantasy kind of way) about the idea of benevolent or mysterious super beings. I do however prefer stories in which these godlike beings do not interfere with lesser beings to the point where they cease to have free will.

As for the second part of the question: the Vorkosigan novels and the Culture novels really are quite similar in many ways, aren't they? Banks and Bujold are both excellent when it comes to gender equality and exploring the possibilties future technology offers in that area, both of them love to play with the contrast between very liberal, highly advanced societies (Beta Colony and the Culture) and sort of primitive, feudal/classist/capitalist societies. Cordelia's Honor, the first Vorkosigan novel, is what Use of Weapons would be if Use of Weapons was about Diziet Sma falling in love with Zakalwe and deciding to spend the rest of her life with him on some barbaric non-Culture planet - of course Zakalwe is a thousand times more fucked-up than Aral Vorkosigan, and the Culture is way cooler than Beta Colony, so it's not surprising that Diziet doesn't do this... and also I think it'd be a massive abuse of power if Diziet entered into a relationship with Zakalwe, on top of all the other shit the Culture does to him: and indeed, it's the one thing she doesn't do. Anyway, back to AI!

I really think science-fiction without artificial intelligences needs to explain WHY there is no AI, because it seems to me that AI is one of the most likely technological developments once you've got computation technology. I don't think the Vorkosigan series ever explains why there are no artifical lifeforms. Probably Bujold, who doesn't do sentient aliens either, decided that she didn't need aliens or AI for category 1 and category 2 (you can have weird and evil humans just as easily, and indeed some of the human civilizations in the Vorkosigan universe would definitely be aliens if this were Star Trek - for example the Cetagandans) and that she didn't want category 3 beings in her universe. That's the outside explanation, but there's no good in-universe explanation (unless I've forgotten it!). Some of the early Vorkosigan novels are more fun than the Culture novels, because Banks's human protagonists (especially in "Consider Phlebas"!) are much less engaging than Bujold's characters, but otoh the Vorkosigan novels get successively less good (Captain Vorpatril's Alliance was AWFUL) whereas Banks actually improves or stays the same in terms of quality.

As I said, I like both category 2 and 3 AI characters, so I have no problem with the Culture series. If you're not familiar with the Culture series, it's basically the Star Trek universe if the Federation managed to survive for another few millenia, formed a galactic civilisation of humanoid races and also developed their AI until it reached a very benevolent category 3 (which might not happen in the Star Trek universe, since they have a habit of treating their AI very badly unless someone does a "Measure of a Man"). The Culture is a socialist-liberal post-scarcity utopia. Basically, everything went perfect for this civilisation and they're as happy and powerful as can be, and its mostly due to the fact that the Minds, their godlike AIs, organize most things. There are also category 2 AIs, the drones, but I find them rather boring because they're usually just quirky people with a (non-anthropomorphic) robot body.

What makes the Culture novels interesting is a) it's a functioning and well-described utopia (world building makes up 60 % or more of Banks's narration) that doesn't shy away from exploring potential weak points and b) the Culture obviously comes into conflict with other civilisations, usually because the Culture believes in the Prime Directive about as much as your average Starfleet Captain, i.e. when it suits them, which it rarely does and c) it's never quite clear to what extent the Minds and the humans really are on equal footing. Outsiders usually believe that the Minds rule the Culture and the humans are little more than indulged pets, and the series implies that this is to some extent true. Which isn't that different from the situation in, say, Greek or Hindu or Norse Mythology, so obviously I enjoy it a great deal.

Fascinatingly, in some of the novels (Excession, Look to Windward and Surface Detail, which are among my favorites), it is implied that one of the very few remaining taboos in the Culture, which is otherwise extremely liberal when it comes to personal life choices (as in: they're a society of Captain Jack Harknesses), is Minds and humans getting too close to each other. Their worst insult one can direct at a Mind is "Meatfucker" (humans also use this as a swear word, but it doesn't carry the same weight as it does when Minds use it) - it's not a coincidence that it sounds like motherfucker, because this is the Culture version of the incest taboo (although presumably they do have an actual incest taboo as well). In Look to Windward, the whole plot hinges on the fact that Minds do not EVER use their powers to invade human thoughts, even though they are for all intents and purposes telepathic and do use these powers to communicate with each other - but not with humans. In Excession, there's a ship, the Grey Area, which has been re-named "Meatfucker" by its fellow Minds and is ostracised because it uses its telepathy to uncover war-crimes committed by less-developed civilisations - and it also kills the perpetrators. In Surface Detail, finally, the ship Falling Outside Normal Constraints is called meatfucker by its scandalized peers because he uses these powers to turn human bodies into his avatars (and it's more or less explicitly stated that he has had sex with humans while using such a "meat" avatar). No reason is ever given in the series as to why this taboo exists - presumably the reason the Minds would give if asked is that "meatfucking" constitutes an abuse of power, but if I remember "Totem and Taboo" correctly, Freud says that one of the reasons taboos have an almost magical power is that they usually concern our oldest and strongest desires. It would make A LOT of sense in the Culture series if the Minds had a deep-seated desire for an (impossible) union with humans, because that would explain why they stick around at all.

As a side thought: there are a few AI-related plots that Banks never did in any of his novels and that I would have LOVED to read. We never got a story in which the Culture interferes with a lower level civilisation that enslaves its AI (that'd also be a cool plot for a Culture/Star Trek crossover) or a lower level civilisation in which artificial lifeforms are at war with their biological creators (crossover with BSG!) or a story in which an outside AI encounters the Culture's Minds and asks: why the hell are you so fascinated by these meatbags?! Plus there's the question of how it all ends - most the higher level civilisations in the Culture universe eventually "sublime" (that is, they link all their minds together and become gods, sort of like the Q Continuum), but it appears that only biological lifeforms do this. So what happens when the human side of the Culture sublimes?

And because I'm watching Blake's 7 at the moment and spoilers tell me that ORAC survives the show until the end: he'd be a prime candidate for joining the Culture, because he's basically a Culture Mind already (they're mostly benevolent, that doesn't mean they're nice) and he deserves to be treated a little better. Or he could just go and meet the holographic Doctor and they could bitch about being switched off and on whenever the humans please...

Dec. 18th, 2013

watchtower

More Blake's 7

I've now seen most of the first season of Blake's 7. So far I'm still not feeling very fannish about it, even though I have gone looking at some fanfic, mostly to discover that there is not enough Vila fic (possibly only on AO3 - fanlore says that Avon/Vila is a popular pairing. I can sort of see why. but at the moment I don't ship anyone) and not much S1 fic.

I like most of the characters, only Cally sometimes annoys me because she's just so... earnest and young and not as competent as her introduction made you think she'd be (I suspect the reason Cally survived when all the other resistance fighters died is because Cally was knocked unconscious early in the fight and spent the rest of it lying under some rubble). Vila is still my favourite, and although Gan and Jenna aren't very interesting characters, they're nice and I like watching them. Was disappointed at "Breakdown", though, I had expected an episode about Gan's brain implant to be more interesting - in general, I find that sometimes the show has exciting premises which then fall short in execution. I like that Avon and Blake both remain fairly ambiguous characters, but I'm still not really warming up to them. Zen remains a bit bland (except he sometimes conveniently malfunctions), but otoh Orac is pretty funny (he may be evil, I'm not sure, but the bit in the last episode where the crew turn him on when they're back on the Liberator was awesome.)

Servalan is one of those characters you probably can't help hearing of through fannish osmosis, so I was looking forward to finding out who she is, and I'm not quite as impressed as I expected to be. She's campy and well-dressed and evil, but... not quite. But I appreciate how hard Blake's 7 tries to have good female characters (I also liked the murder mystery episode where the murderer turned out to be the tiny wimpy blonde - these days that twist wouldn't be as great, but considering that this is old-timey sci-fi...) and she and Travis are an entertaining team.

Dec. 16th, 2013

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Talking Meme: Dec 16

Dec 16: differences between German and English-speaking fandom for gnine

I have an academic paper on this topic in the works, in which I'll talk about some of the historical developments and linguistic phenomena that could explain some of these differences, but this is a great opportunity to talk about some of the more subjective aspects of this issue.

Quick recap: I used to be in German fandom from when I was about 12-13 to when I was 16 (this coincides with my time in anime fandom), at which point I began to drift more and more into English fandom. There are fandoms (Highlander, Star Trek, X-Files) where I watched the shows as they aired in German, and then read the fic in English, but I wasn't yet proficient enough in English to write fic. There were other fandoms (Harry Potter) where I read the English originals and wrote fic in both languages. These days, I watch and read nearly everything in English and the only reason to visit German fandom is when a fandom doesn't exist in English (such as Tatort or Krabat).

One major difference between English-speaking and German fandom is that it feels as though there are a lot more aca-fans and long-time fans in English fandoms - people who write meta, who have been around the block a few times, who reflect on the way fandom works, who organize stuff, who come up with new fannish activities, who have made fandom a lifetime hobby and so on. There are also more BNFs. German fandom, on the other hand, often feels as though there are very many young fans and newbies. One of the thing that initially attracted me to English fandom, aside from the quantity of fic, was the presence of "cool" fans, people whose blogs (this was when LJ took off) I wanted to follow, whose opinions shaped mine. The other thing was meta: I loved the Harry Potter meta on mugglenet, for example, and there simply wasn't a good equivalent in German. Why is this so? We Germans have a reputation for being serious and philosophical, you'd think we'd be all over the meta, but as far as I can tell, this has never been the case.

German fandom also doesn't love slash as much as English-speaking fandom does. It loves yaoi, because German fandom is dominated by anime fandom, but in non-anime/manga fandoms, very many German fans seem to dislike slash or prefer het. It's still common for German fanfics to include a "sorry if you don't like slash" or "achtung, slash!" warning in their headers and summaries, as though slash is something you have to apologize for, something that rarely see in English-speaking fandom where slash is usually the norm. This is even weirder than the absence of meta, because I really don't think Germans are more homophobic than Americans.

The quality of the fic is... eh. It's entirely possible that everything just sounds more sophisticated and cool when it's said in a language not your own, but I've got a degree in English Lit and I can recognize English badfic when I see it, so that can't be the only explanation. I do think that there is a lot more badfic and fewer really excellent stories in German fandom. To be fair, though, English-speaking fandom is much bigger, so of course the talent pool also is.

And usually going back to German fandom feels like stepping into a time machine that inevitably takes you back five to ten years into fandom's (and my own) past, and not in a cool retro way. It's like I step out and I think: why are all the computers beige? Why are you still listening to the Spice Girls? Is that a tape recorder?! No, I don't want to do the Macarena!...
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Dec Talking Meme - oops, should have posted this yesterday

Dec 15, dragonofmemory wants me to talk about: superheroes, what makes them super

I've liked superheroes for quite a while now, and I think I'll never stop liking the genre. Here are some reasons why:

1) Superheroes are always good for secrets and reveals. Superheroes without secret identities or double lives can be interesting, sure. Marvel is currently my favourite, and they don't do secret identities as much as DC, but even there I like stories where for example Tony Stark doesn't do the early Iron Man reveal.

2) Superheroes are the modern equivalent of a number of older genres, all of which I like - mythology, the classic and medieval epic, folk hero stories, Arthurian romance and Gothic, just to name a few. Sometimes you recognize the old in the new, and that gives me a particular kind of pleasure. It's like there's a particular mode to literature that all these genres belong to: stories that are popular and to some extent archetypal, with heroes that are larger than life, set in developing and expandable universes.

3) And since I'm talking of universes already: both Marvel and DC have been creating their mythologies for decades. They've grown to a size and complexity that single-creator stories, one-shot movies or TV series that only last for a couple of years rarely reach. In a way it's a lot like fanfic: there may or may not be a single original text, but people keep adapting, appropriating and expanding this text. Star Trek or Doctor Who are other examples of this phenomenon, and as you know, I also love them.

5) Superpowers are fun, because they cause unique problems and opportunities. They're wish fulfilment fantasies and metaphors for everyday issues, and they allow you to write stories where fantasy and sci-fi, detective and spy fiction and all sorts of other genres intersect. This mix of genres is another thing I like, see X-Files or Buffy (arguably, "superhero" is Buffy's genre).

6) Iconicity - most superheroes can be boiled down to a few bare essentials, a handful of key images and themes. Usually, these key images all come from the hero's origin story. And then it's just a matter of variations on a theme, of using the same basic structure and tweaking it a little. A lot of the pleasure of superheroes lies in repetition and in the way a savvy fan can always say "I see what you did there". This is also great for AUs (both Marvel and DC have been doing "canonical" AUs for ages) and for subversions of the theme.

7) I like the visual aesthetics of superheroes - bright and fantastic costumes, breath-taking fights, attractive people. It's got the same appeal as figure-skating or circus acrobats.

Dec. 9th, 2013

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Talking Meme #1

Katy wanted me to talk about: my favorite Big Finish Doctor.

My favorite Big Finish Doctor is… Bernice Summerfield! No, wait. Actually my favourite audio Doctor is Eight, with Six a close second.* Eight wins for shallow reasons - “The Night of the Doctor” just reminded me that Paul McGann has the sexiest and most pleasant voice I’ve ever heard. He’s not just good on audio, though - I’d love to see more Eight on screen, too, because McGann is also a decent actor, and the costume they gave him in “Night of the Doctor” was better than I would’ve expected (i.e. better than the updated costume Big Finish gave him a few years back - the one that included a messenger bag. Practical, yes, but the Doctor just doesn't have a handbag. Neither do his companions. It's like a rule, or something, if you travel in the TARDIS, you don't get to bring your wallet/phone/make-up/housekeys. If it doesn't fit into a pocket, you leave it at home.)

One thing I love about Eight (and about McGann playing Eight) is that his enthusiasm for adventure and for strange things feels very genuine. With Eleven, for example, but also sometimes with Ten and Nine, their enthusiasm seems to be a mask, a role they’ve chosen for themselves, or as though they’re going through the motions. Sometimes their joy and wonder is genuine, but more often it’s one of those “I do this because this is what I do” deals rather than “I do this because I WANT TO OMG IT IS GREAT”. Which makes sense because the New Who Doctors are in a way a twisted fairy-tale version of the original tale, and the whole show is frequently an excercise in retro-nostalgia. But the way enthusiasm comes very naturally to Eight is charming, and Paul McGann is simply great at playing manic characters. I also love it when Eight goes a bit crazy, because it generally feels as though he really is out of control or a bit lost, which is both frightening and sympathetic. A certain lack of control - impulsiveness, over-confidence, a tendency to ramble, wander and get lost - is part of the Doctor’s character in any regeneration, and it’s quite often emphasized with Eight.

But Eight also has some genuinely heroic moments when you see that his range includes commanding, clever, angry, even dangerous, and I think it’s all the more impressive because right up until he does it, you don’t think he has it in him.

*This kinda fluctuates. There would have been some strong points in Six’s favour - I like him with Evelyn and Charley a lot, Colin Baker and Big Finish did an ace job turning Six as he was on the show into a much more complex and likable guy, and Six can be both very funny and very sad.

It's been quite a while since I listened to an audio - are there any recent BFs that are really good? The last Eight I listened to was with Mary Shelley as companion, and the last Six audio was "Industrial Evolution". I'm not caught up on Gallifrey or Benny, either...

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